Book Review: The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

Have you ever read a book that just reached right out and punched you in the heart?  The kind of book that made you stare at it for a while after you finished it, wondering just how your life was going to be different from then on?  Because it had to be different, simply because of that book.

For me, The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford was one of those books.  I picked it up on a random trip to Barnes & Noble, when I peeked at the bargain rack and immediately snatched it up.  This book practically jumped into my hands and demanded, “Read me!”

The tone of the book very well portrays the loneliness and the magic of living near the sea, combined with the solemn desperation of infertility.  What struck me most was the exploration of sirenomelia, also known as mermaid syndrome.  Having had a daughter born with a cancerous tumor, any plot element around a baby with a birth defect or a miscarriage gets me right away.  I’ll be honest, it didn’t help that my last name is part of the name of the syndrome.  Let’s just say there’s some significant water damage to the pages of this book.

The book switches back and forth between Alexander Ferguson, a vicar and evolutionary scientist in 1860, and Ruth and Michael, who have purchased a house by the sea in the hopes of making it a home for their future family.  They find the bones of a baby with mermaid syndrome under the floorboards, causing Ruth to not only pursue the truth behind the deceased child but behind her own relationship with her mother.

I’ve had The Sea House sitting on the corner of my desk for a while, planning to write a review.  But I was so involved in the reading that I didn’t even make any notes, and I couldn’t think of anything quite sufficient to say about it.  It’s just that good.  It’s unique, it’s haunting, and it thrashed my heart into a hundred pieces.  This volume has earned a permanent place on my shelf.

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Author Interview: Ashley Goss

An author who isn’t afraid to be prolific in any genre that pleases her, Ashley Goss and I had a moment to chat about her book background and where she’s headed with her writing.

What inspired you to write about vampires?

Honestly, I love reading about vampires and werewolves so I knew I would end up writing a series one day however I didn’t think it would be this soon. My series all came from nightmares I had for a series of nights. I would jot notes down as soon as I would wake in case I would forget anything. It’s crazy how that happens. Always have need a pen and paper by my bed.

Will there be more vampire books in the future? 

Yes, there will be more books in the future along with werewolves, witches and others. I have built an entire world around this vampire series which will fall into the other books. Once the vampires series is done, certain characters will play HUGE roles in the werewolf and witch novels. I can’t say too much cause I don’t want to give anything away too early.

Tell us about your other books.

My other books are strictly romance books. I have written a mystery novel that should be released at some point towards the end of 2018. Stay tuned for more information on that release.

I see that you like to do book reviews.  What do you look for in a book?

I look for a good synopsis. If your synopsis can hold me then I use the Look Inside feature and read the first chapter of the book.  Of course if I’m still interested then I purchase the book and continue reading.

Were books a large part of your childhood?

Yes, as a child I was obsessed with reading anything I could get my hands on. Some of my favorite authors are still: John Green, Nicholas Sparks, Danielle Steel and Gayle Forman. Of course, I couldn’t have gotten through grade school without Judy Blume or Goosebumps.

In your opinion, what does it take to be a writer?

No matter what kind of writer, you have to have an active imagination, a way to tell your story, and of course keeping it interesting. The hardest thing about being a writer is finishing your story, seeing it through from beginning to end.

What’s your life like outside of writing?

I am a mother of a beautiful 9-year-old girl and just recently got engaged on Christmas Eve of 2017. I work a full-time office job as well as writing on the side. I am still an avid reader. Right now, I just got done binge watching the Harry Potter collection.

Tea or coffee?

I don’t even like tea. I am 100% a coffee FIEND. I write often at coffee shops. When I write, I always have a cup of coffee by my side. =)

Do you have other books in the works?

I have about 20 unfinished manuscripts at the moment, all of which are half-written. I have three books coming out in 2019. I have not released exactly what books on what dates yet but I will announce this in March 2018.

Be sure to check out Ashley’s website, follow her on Twitter at @authorashleyg, and like her on Facebook.  Her books can be found on Amazon.

 

 

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Book Review: Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein

Okay, I know you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I completely did.  I mean, just look at this thing.  Every time I went to Barnes & Noble, this book was practically dancing and singing on the shelf, begging me to take it home.

I resisted at first, but that’s pretty much just because I’m a ridiculous tightwad unless I’m buying something for my kids.  Also, I was a little worried that it might be too “heavy.”  It’s about a mission to Saturn, and while I’m not afraid of heavy reading, I’m not always in the mood for it.

It turns out I didn’t have to be.  When I finally decided that I had to buy the book even if it was just so I could look at the pretty cover on my shelf, I discovered a story that was riveting and thrilling while also being very real.  It was surprisingly down-to-Earth for a story about space, and I loved it.

Saturn Run is the story of an urgent flight to Saturn (and a race against the Chinese to get there first) when the possibility of a visit by an alien spaceship is discovered.  You couldn’t possibly tell a story so big from just one viewpoint, so the authors didn’t.  This a character-driven plot, focusing on how the mission affected the different people involved in it.  There are a lot of characters, but they’re all very deep, distinguishable, and memorable.  While the novel outlines the political aspects of space travel, it emphasizes the direct impact on the characters involved.  The viewpoint changes numerous times, even within chapters, but it’s so seamless that it only adds to the story.

Although Saturn Run falls doubtlessly in the category of science fiction, it also just might be creating a new genre of “science really-could-happen-in-the-timeframe-specified.”  The author’s note in the back (which you can’t read until you’ve read the story) shows just how much prep work the authors did for this novel, including plotting orbits and calculating the engine specifics of the starships involved.  While the science is not what we have today, there was nothing as Star Trek-y as a transporter or a tractor beam (although those could have been quite useful to some of the characters).  Sandford and Ctein took current science and advanced it by fifty years without throwing in a lot of magic and fantasy.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in science fiction.  I even finished the last third of it with a terrible head cold because I just couldn’t put it down!

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Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

I know a lot of people read To Kill a Mockingbird sometime around junior high, but I wasn’t one of them.  Somehow, I missed this one.  Maybe it was because we moved around a little bit, or maybe I had teachers who weren’t interested in it.  I finally read it a few years ago and loved it, so I was excited when I picked up a copy of Go Set a Watchman.

This book has a very similar tone to Mockingbird, somewhere between ideal summer days and the painful smack of real life.  While Mockingbird was a coming-of-age story for a child version of Jean Louis “Scout” Finch, Watchman is a coming-of-age story for her as an adult.  She returns to Maycomb thinking she understands where she has come from now that she’s been living in New York City for a while, but soon comes to realized that you can never go home again:

Hell is eternal apartness.  What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present?  I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home.  But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party.

It’s the kind of thing that makes the book relatable, because many of us realize eventually that even though we are adults, we aren’t quite grown.

The repeated themes of life in the South, racism, and the importance of family aren’t a surprise, since this book is focused on the same characters as Mockingbird and essentially served as a first draft for the novel that would come to win Harper Lee so many accolades.

What I believe made Lee such a well-known writer was her excellent use of description.  Her word choice could make nothing sound like something and make it seem far more important to the story than it really was:

On any other day she would have stood barefoot on the wet grass listening to the mockingbirds’ early service; she would have pondered over the meaninglessness of silent, austere beauty renewing itself with every sunrise and going ungazed at by half the world.  She would have walked beneath yellow-ringed pines rising to a brilliant eastern sky, and her senses would have succumbed to the joy of the morning.

While nobody can debate that Lee was a talented writer and that she tackled subjects that might make other authors turn toward something a little less realistic, I can’t say this is my favorite book.  There were plenty of times when it was too boring, focusing so much on the character arc that there was little action.  The massive amount of contemporary references–which would require me to stop and look them up on the internet if I truly wanted to understand the point a character was making–made it a bit of a difficult read.  One thing that especially bothered me towards the end of the book was that Dr. Finch and Atticus spoke in very indirect, beat-around-the-bush sort of ways that were more confusing that intriguing.  I didn’t come to this book looking for a light read, and I certainly didn’t find one.

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Author Interview: Carlos LoPopolo

There’s nothing better than a good children’s book, unless it’s one that is based on real life.  That’s the case with Zobo:  The First Mustang, the first in a series of books that follows the real history of the mustang in America.

              Zobo with his mother, Rain

I see you’ve established two wild horse preserves in New Mexico, and you’re working on starting another one in Texas.  Where did your passion for horses come from?

I’ve always been around horses since I was seven, but in ‘99 when I found out what was happening to the mustang it became important to understand their plight and help to preserve them for future generations.  It was on their back this country this country was built.

It’s quite a process to produce a picture book.  What’s the toughest part?

Finding an artist that understands your concept.

                    Zobo’s father, Sombrillo

What does the future hold for Zobo?  Will there be more books coming?

Zobo is the first generation. The series brings the lineage forward from the area of present day Vera Cruz, Mexico to the government preserve they graze on today.  I am presently working on the eighth book in the series and the tenth line of Zobo’s descendants.

How long have you been writing?

Since I was in a kid but didn’t get serious until I was in high school.

 

Who are your favorite authors?

Thurber, Diaz, Castaneda. I like this quote from Castaneda: The trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.

The path Zobo and his family would have taken.

What are you reading right now?

Historical documents from New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.

Bio:  Pam and Carlos live in Bastrop Texas on a little parcel of land with their friends; three dogs, Bob, Mindy, and Trish, two cats Molly and Terry, three chickens (the chickens all look alike so they are hard to name), two donkeys, Bella and Storm, and two horses, Bliss, and Crackers. They all live together in harmony most of the time but, sometimes in chaos.  When they are not enjoying the bright sunshine of Central Texas or the fantastic sunsets they are thinking about where Zobo’s descendants are going next.   Since 1999 Carlos has been rounding up and preserving wild horses.  He has established two wild horse preserves in New Mexico.   Together with his wife Pam they are trying to raise enough money to purchase land here in Texas to open up another wild horse preserve. They are not asking for donations, which is why they are writing the Zobo series.  Through the sale of the books and the development of the movie project,  they hope to raise enough money to purchase land for a new preserve.

 

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Author Interview – Rachel De La Fuente

With her book, The Most Special Chosen, out this weekend, I got a chance to chat with Rachel De La Fuente about books, writing, and our addictions-in-common.  Make sure to check out her release party on Facebook as well!

Tell us a little bit about your new book, The Most Special Chosen.

The Most Special Chosen is about a seemingly normal, though somewhat vampire obsessed, college student, Elysabeth Vance; her best friend of 8 years, Shawn Dooley; and her sexy new boyfriend, Damien. Damien draws Elysabeth like a moth to a flame, but practically repulses Shawn, literally making his hair stand on end.

Shawn is concerned about their relationship, but Elysabeth’s intuition, the little voice that has been guiding her throughout her life, convinces her that all is well. With a little help from Damien and his family, Elysabeth will uncover her powerful bloodline and unlock her destiny. After all, fate happens, even if you don’t believe in it.

What more do you have planned for the Exalted Bloodline series?

The currently planned story arc includes 6 books. That could increase if any of the books get too long. For example, when I started writing the second book, it included book 3, but the manuscript got too long, so I separated them.

Book 2 is currently about 1/2 – 2/3 done. I have to go back and make some changes after the editing I’ve done on The Most Special Chosen, and then I can work on finishing it.

I also have an ongoing commission with artist Kyle McGill, a friend of mine from college. He’s creating portraits of all of my main characters. I’ve featured his work in each of my character interviews.

The best way to keep up on future Exalted Bloodlines Series news is to subscribe to my blog or newsletter.

I see that you’re a fountain pen enthusiast (something I’m guilty of myself). Do you prefer a certain brand of pens or ink?

Yay! Another person afflicted (or blessed, depending on your point of view) with the fountain pen virus. 😀  Fountain pens are so much fun, and write so smoothly.

I have a particular affinity for visually arresting pens, especially brightly colored ones. New pens are always coming on the market, so it’s nearly impossible to say that any one brand has the prettiest pens.

As far as ease, my favorites are Lamy Safari and Pilot Metropolitan. No matter how long I leave those pens without writing, I can come back, pick one up, and it will just start writing again. It’s fabulous.

For writing quality, of the pens I own, the smoothest pen is my Pineider Key of Heaven. But it’s an EXPENSIVE pen, so I would expect it to be fabulous. I wouldn’t have picked it up if I wasn’t offered a fabulous deal. And the store let me try writing with it, which completely sold me on the pen.

Favorite ink brand…that’s even harder. I’m going to go with the easiest metric. Of my currently inked pens, the most utilized brand is Diamine. But Pilot Iroshizuku and Organics Studio are high on my list as well. And my fiancé loves Robert Oster.

Sorry for the long response. I get a little carried away with fountain pens and ink. I don’t have a problem…really…

I’m thrilled to see that you love to cross stitch! (Are we related or something??) What’s your favorite piece that you’ve done?

My family tree is spread so wide, we could be. J I’ve only finished a few pieces, and I have one massive one in the works.

My favorite finished work is one featuring two sleeping kittens in a windowsill. I stitched it as a thank you gift to my cousin for paying for some life-saving vet care for my male cat. I couldn’t afford it at the time. The kittens happened to match the coloring of my two cats almost exactly. To finish the piece, I framed it with a mat where I added my cats’ paw prints. My cousin still has it up on a bookshelf in her living room.

My in-progress piece is an enormous Harry Potter piece based on the Giant sampler available through CloudsFactory. I made a bunch of edits and separated the characters and objects by books. But now it’s around 3′ x 4′. Who know when I’ll actually get a chance to finish it.

What’s your writing process like?

That’s a little hard to say. The Most Special Chosen is my first novel, but it’s been a nearly 8-year journey to get it to this publication, and that’s only in this iteration.

Recently, I’ve noticed that my writing has been changing. I have an outline of sorts for book 2, whereas I didn’t for book one. I feel like I’m more aware of my writing, too. I’m more careful in my word choices and how I present my characters. I also do a better job of maintaining my characters’ individual voices. I’m hoping this means less editing for book 2, because I really don’t want to take another 8 years.

But there are also things that have stayed the same. I still write in a non-linear fashion. Sometimes things come to me, and I have to jot them down. Then I can go back and work them into the story. I also still write, then read over what I’ve written repeatedly, revising as I go.

One thing I wish I could get a hang of is writing to a daily quota. I don’t know how people do it. I write when I feel inspired, because otherwise, whatever I write is complete crap. More often than not, when I force myself to write, I end up simply deleting everything.

But, on the up side, when I write while inspired, it typically flows very easily, to the point where I can write several thousand words in a sitting.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Just keep writing. It sounds silly, I suppose, but if you really enjoy writing, if you really want your writing to go somewhere. Just keep at it. Some of my friends read The Most Special Chosen when it was self-published, and then went on to read the beginning of book two several years later. They noticed a significant improvement in my writing, and I wasn’t even “trying” to improve. It just happens with practice.

Also, read as much as you can. Really study the books you like. Pay attention to the details. Take note of the way characters interact, how settings are described. And don’t disregard the bad books either. You can learn a lot from them as well. As you learn what does and doesn’t work, you can refine your own writing style.

Scroll down for an excerpt for The Most Special Chosen, or you can find the entire first chapter on her website.  You can also visit Rachel on Facebook or order her book on Amazon.

  * * *

It takes every ounce of my self-control to not slam my books down on the table as I reach Shawn. To avoid getting thrown out of the library, I plonk them down lightly and drop into a chair with a sigh.

“Bad day?” whispers Shawn, my best friend of eight years. “I thought it was supposed to be great.”

I schlump forward and rest my chin on my hand. “It was supposed to be, according to my intuition. That’s why I dressed nicely.” I gesture vaguely to my outfit with my free hand. I have on a pair of black, knee-high, leather boots; black leggings; and a lightweight, crimson sweater dress that accentuates my curvy figure. I only wear a little makeup to set off my brown, almond-shaped eyes. I’ve left my copper-colored hair long and wavy, hanging to my hips.

“The only thing special about today is that I’ve been rather hot.” I pull my hair up and shake it as I speak, coaxing some air to my neck. “Southern California isn’t particularly cold in November.”

“I thought you said your intuition is never wrong.”

“It’s not, I just…” I shrug, unsure how to finish that sentence. My intuition hasn’t been wrong once in my entire life, and ignoring it has always been to my detriment. I can’t understand how it’s suddenly wrong.

Shawn leans forward to touch my hand. “Maybe your something special is still to come. The day isn’t over yet.”

I shrug again and watch as he goes back to his studying. He hasn’t changed much since high school. His soft, dirty-blonde hair hangs to his ears; huge, horn-rimmed glasses hide his startling green eyes; and his nose is a little too big for his face. He’s not ugly, but he’s no model, either.

Look up.

My intuition, the same strange whisper I’ve heard at various points in my life, speaks again. I obey instantly. Perhaps this is the something special I’ve been waiting for. I catch sight of the most gorgeous guy I’ve ever seen around the many bookcases and quickly sit up straight. He’s perfect! Imagine if he’s — No, Lys. My movement catches Shawn’s eye. He peers over his shoulder, following my line of sight, then turns back, rolling his eyes.

“What is it with you and guys in black?” he says, “Especially ones that look like —”

My sharp look shuts him up. He knows better than to discuss that in public. But I have to admit he has a point. I glance back at Mr. Gorgeous. He does look like — Dammit Lys! They don’t exist. I try not to stare and fail miserably. He has shoulder-length, jet-black hair that looks almost blue in the light; large, ice-blue eyes; full and sensual yet masculine lips; a square jaw that somehow doesn’t look chiseled; a mustache that grows into a short goatee; and lovely, olive skin.

He rounds the last bookcase and I can see he’s wearing a black, form-fitting shirt that hints at washboard abs; black leather pants; a floor-length, black, leather, trench coat that accentuates his broad shoulders; and combat boots. He must be at least six feet tall and he walks with a deadly purpose. He’s exactly what I’ve always imagined. Everything about him screams dangerous; and the effect is mesmerizing.

He’s obviously looking for something — or someone. Probably a girlfriend. I’m still ogling him when his gaze suddenly meets mine. I see a brief flash of recognition, but I know I’ve never seen him before. His eyes dart down and back up, and I have an irrational desire to pull my neckline down a bit. His grin is sinful. It promises wicked things, and I want to find out exactly what they are. I drop my gaze to Shawn who’s making kissy faces at me. My glare could freeze fire. Shawn stops.

The guy walks up and stops next to me. “Hello.”

Oh, holy mother! His voice is deep and sensual and envelops me, sending shivers down my spine. I look up at him and become enraptured by his smile. It takes a moment, but I finally manage to speak. “Hi, can I help you?”

“Not exactly. I merely wondered if I may sit with you.” I can’t quite place his accent. It’s French, but there’s something else there, too, and it runs right through me like fire, pooling low in my belly. What the hell, Lys? This is not a normal reaction for me.

I glance at Shawn who nods reluctantly, knowing I’ll say yes either way. “Yes, of course. Are you new? I don’t believe I’ve seen you before.” Idiot! I mentally kick myself. It’s a huge campus, and I don’t know everyone.

He fluidly takes a seat, and I take in his perfect posture. It certainly doesn’t go with the way he looks.

“Actually, I have been taking classes online. I decided that since I will be graduating soon, I should get to know some of the other students and start networking.”

I nod. “Yeah, definitely a good idea. What’s your major?”

“International Relations and Diplomacy, and International Business.” Wow, double major. Must be smart, and obviously ambitious. “And yourself?”

“Architecture and Interior Design. My mom’s always said I have an eye for detail, and I like doing it. The money’s not bad either…” I don’t know why I feel the need to explain myself, but my major suddenly seems frivolous.

He smiles. “It is good you chose to do something you are passionate about,” he then looks to Shawn. “And what are you studying?”

“Advanced mathematics. I’d like to be a college professor.” I grin at the defiant way Shawn speaks. His father wanted, still wants, him to go into business and follow in his footsteps. Shawn, however, has other ideas.

“That is admirable. I do not have patience for such mathematics,” he looks down as though embarrassed, then glances back up at Shawn. “But I have a great respect for those who do.”

His response, spoken without any hint of sarcasm or derision, disarms Shawn. “Oh, uh, thanks…”

“Forgive me, where are my manners? I am Damien Delanciennes,” he says, dipping his head like he’s bowing. How odd.

“Interesting name,” grumbles Shawn. I shoot him a dirty look. “I’m Shawn, Shawn Dooley.” He offers Damien his hand, and they shake.

“It is nice to meet you, Shawn. And you, Chérie? I am certain your name is as beautiful as you.” Perhaps it’s because I’m hit by the full force of his blue eyes, but despite having just met, his endearment doesn’t sound odd, nor does the line sound cheesy.

“I’m Elysabeth Vance.” I hold out my hand to shake his, but instead, he takes it lightly and raises it to his lips. He brushes a soft kiss against my knuckles, staring straight into my eyes as he does so and my stomach flips over. Holy crap! I feel all fluttery. His actions don’t match his appearance in the least, and I love it.

“I am very pleased to meet you. You have a lovely name. It references beauty and greatness.”

My face heats. “Thanks. Your name is… elegant.”

He nods his thanks. Damien turns suddenly to face Shawn and sees his frown. “Forgive me, have I given offense? Are you… together?”

Before Shawn can answer, I make sure to set the record straight. “No! No, we’re friends. Shawn has been my best friend since freshman year in high school.”

His look of concern vanishes. “Friendships like that are special.”

I grin at Shawn. “They are.”

It’s quickly becoming apparent I won’t be getting any schoolwork done tonight. Good thing I know the material well. I take a quick glance at the clock and confirm what I’d already suspected.

Damien follows my glance. “I am sorry, am I detaining you?”

“No, not at all, but the library will only be open another ten minutes. I won’t get much done in that time.”

“My apologies, I have kept you from your studies.”

“Oh, no, it’s okay. I don’t have much homework.” I reluctantly gather my things and stand. I don’t really want to go. I want stay and talk to this gorgeous guy. “It was really nice to meet you, Damien.”

He places a hand on my arm to keep me from leaving. “Perhaps, if you are not too busy, you would allow me to buy you a coffee?” Yes! I do a little victory dance in my head.

I see doubt and even worry in Shawn’s eyes when I glance at him, and it makes me pause. I don’t know this guy. It probably isn’t smart to go anywhere with him no matter how gorgeous he is. Maybe I should give it a pass.

Go.

Well, my intuition knows best. I’m certainly not going to argue this suggestion. “If we can go somewhere with hot chocolate, I’m in.” Damien looks almost relieved at my answer. “But I have to be up early in the morning, so it will have to be quick.”

“That is acceptable.” There’s a hint of disappointment in his eyes. “Thank you for joining me. Shawn,” he turns to my best friend. “Would you care to join us as well?”

With Damien’s attention elsewhere, I shake my head emphatically with a pleading expression. It’s easy to tell that Shawn isn’t happy about it, but he gives in. “No, thanks. I actually do need to study. Lys, I’ll see you when you get home.”

I sigh. He just HAD to get in a parting shot. Damien is looking between us, obviously confused. I do my best to set him at ease. “We’re roommates. We share a townhouse. But we’re only friends, really.”

He relaxes. “I see. Shall we go then, Elysabeth?”

“Yeah. I’ll follow you to your car. Shawn drove this morning.”

* * *

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Guest Post: Review of Better than Before by Vijay Rajamani

by Vijay Rajamani

Habits shape our existence and future.  Scientists claim that we repeat about 45 percent of our behavior almost daily.

Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. By changing our habits, we can change our lives. But is it easy to change habits? No.

Gretchen Rubin’s book, Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives, addresses the question:  How do we change our habits?

There are numerous categories of books on habits. Most are interesting reads that give you great insights on habits. However, I found some limitations such as:

(a) Many books train you to intellectually appreciate the science or art of habit formation. They talk about how the brain makes neural connections, which parts of the brains are involved in habit formation process, etc. You may not connect well with these if you don’t enjoy authors who don the persona of a professor.

(b) Most don’t consider the role of your own personality in building and sustaining habits. Unfortunately, no one size fits all — especially when it comes to habits.

(c) Some try to tell you the best habits to build, which may not resonate with your own ideas of good habits.

(d) Few others get in to research findings and reel out statistics of behavioural experiments, which are insightful for academic discussions, but may not be easy to adopt in your own life.

These make you treat the science of habits as an intellectual read, rather than something easy enough to try out yourself and make remarkable changes.

However, Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before is a refreshingly different take on habit formation and change. “Better than before” is a transformational state that we all seek to achieve.

An epiphany that Gretchen had during a chance conversation with a friend is the starting point of this book. Her friend struggles with sustaining her exercise habit post-marriage.

That gets Gretchen to ponder over many interesting questions about habits, such as:  It is understandable why it’s hard to form a habit we don’t enjoy, but why is it hard to form a habit we do enjoy? Why is it that sometimes people acquire habits overnight, and sometimes they drop longtime habits just as abruptly?

Gretchen’s sister Elizabeth, nudges her to be a guinea pig herself (Gretchen) to try out various habit formation, habit change strategies, and share her insights to the world. Gretchen picks up the challenge and the result is Better than Before.

Gretchen divides the book in to 5 sections.

Section I: “Self-Knowledge,” explores the two strategies that help us to understand ourselves.

Gretchen ties habit formation to your personality type. Gretchen divides humans in to 4 personality types (or tendencies), based on how one meets (or doesn’t meet) internal and external expectations. (1) Upholder (meet both internal and external expectations) (2) Obliger (meets external but not internal expectations) (3) Questioner (meets internal but not external expectations) and (4) Rebel (meets neither external nor internal expectations). If you are interested in taking her quiz to find out your tendency, here’s the link.

This is a game-changing insight because each personality type has a different worldview and different ways of solving problems. What works for one type may not work for another. You need to understand what type you are and adopt different strategies based on your personality type.

Forinstance if you are a questioner, you won’t do anything unless you have convinced yourself that a habit is of value before you pick it up. If you try to start a habit before you have passed that test, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Similarly, if you are an obliger you need someone that you are accountable for. If you don’t find yourself accountable to anything or anyone for a habit, then you may not be successful at that. She also underlines certain other personality differences such as lark vs. owl and sprinter vs marathoner that greatly influence how we form habits.

Section II: “Pillars of Habits,” examines the strategies of Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability.

As for monitoring, Gretchen talks about her experiences with monitoring her health using fitness bots, and how it helped her use the data to get insights to change habits.

She talks about the foundational habits of sleep, eating and drinking right, and uncluttering, and how she tried to embrace them.

In scheduling, she describes her experience of trying to schedule things, and offers helpful suggestions on how you can be smart about them if you factor in your personality types (such as owls vs. larks).

Using accountability as a strategy, she argues that you can strengthen your habit-building if you make yourself accountable to someone (even yourself) for your actions. That improves your self-command.

Section III: “The Best Time to Begin” considers the importance of the time of beginning when forming a habit, as explored in the strategies of First Steps, Clean Slate, and Lightning Bolt.

Section IV: “Desire, Ease, and Excuses” considers our desires to avoid effort and experience pleasure—which play a role in the strategies of Abstaining, Convenience, Inconvenience, Safeguards, Loophole-Spotting, Distraction, Reward, Treats, and Pairing.

Section V: “Unique, Just like Everyone Else” investigates the strategies that arise from our drive to understand and define ourselves in the context of other people, in the strategies of Clarity, Identity, and Other People.

Gretchen writes most of the book in first person, talking about her own struggles in picking up habits and how she goes about approaching them. She also narrates how she influences her friends and family with these strategies and documents their success or failure with those strategies. These are almost in story format, so your attention is certainly hooked.

I could feel totally connected with the way she narrates her strategies and experiments. Each sentence in the book is packed with wisdom. These stem from Gretchen’s own experiences, as well as the research material that she has gone through in arriving at these conclusions (if you read through the appendix).

Gretchen has taken care not to bore you through all the statistics and to keep it interesting. She makes the point that if something works for you, it is as significant or more significant than the insights from research and data.

The way she has interspersed some of her “Secrets of Adulthood” as part of the habit-formation strategies, blends naturally and enhances the narrative. The one I particularly liked was “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”

The book takes a human view of habit formation. It talks about potential traps that you may face and what you can do about them.

It doesn’t offer iron-clad guarantees on what strategies will stick and what will not. It depends on you and your tendency. This is not also a prescriptive attempt to define what habits are right for you.

Think of it as a catalogue of strategies that Gretchen picked to try certain habits, and her experiences with those.

Most of the strategies are so simple that you can adopt them very easily and quickly. It is totally up to you to decide and adopt the habits that are important to you, and the strategy you think will work best for you.

You may not particularly enjoy this book: (a) If you want a more analytical narrative that focuses more on research findings, data, graphs and ties everything back to the statements; (b) If you want the organization of the book to be bulletized list of things to do; (c) If you need a list of actions or habits all outlined clearly for you to extract the summary; (d) If you think first-person narrative of personal experiences is not conducive to a subject like this.

I found this book to be a fascinating read. The narrative is simple, concise, and well-organized. No wonder it is a NY Times bestseller.

I am actively trying out some of the strategies (like scheduling, monitoring etc.). I find that some strategies work and some don’t. I hope you find it enjoyable too.

This article is by Vijay Rajamani, a blogger based out of Bangalore, India. He is a productivity enthusiast, who writes about Productivity topics in his blog My Productivity Lab.

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