Red Queen

Red Queen
by Victoria Aveyard
1/7 stars

(some spoilers, if you care)

I put this book on my list because it won a Goodreads Choice Award. Often when that happens, a book is worth my time and I enjoy the read. Unfortunately for me (and my friends to whom I read snippets aloud) this book was terrible. There was little to nothing redeeming in the prose, story, or ideas. I have no idea why anyone would find Red Queen enjoyable, much less commendable.

Let’s start with what I consider to be essential in a fantasy volume: world-building. The world is presented as a fundamentally simple one. There are the Silvers (whom we hate) and the Reds. They are called Silvers and Reds because of the color of their blood. Literally. The Silvers (whom we still hate) rule the land – or possibly the world, it was hard to tell – because they have superpowers. The Reds are the underlings because they don’t. Well, except for our heroine. She is special.

The Silvers’ powers include mind control in various forms, elemental bending, fostering flora, and negating another’s powers. The powers are apparently genetic, as families share the same powers. Unfortunately, Aveyard breaks her own rules on this by the end of the book, so I am forced to assume that power distribution is random.

The Reds are supposed as being horribly oppressed, except that there is very little evidence that they are so. There is military conscription for some groups, and not enough jobs to go around. Additionally, the Silvers are richer, some opulently so.

Obviously, our heroine has to be a Red. How would she be a Mary Sue otherwise? She is not only from the lower class, she also 1) has a perfect younger sister 2) ends up having powers because plot 3) has three love interests (two of which are princes) 4) is raised up to princessdom and 5) secretly works for the rebellion. I am sure there is more. I honestly lost track of how trope filled and cliche ridden this character is. And since the book is written from first person, you cannot get away from her.

Did I mention we hate the Silvers? In case you ever forget, it comes up every other page of the book in some form. But actually, though. I looked. Let me be perfectly clear on this. The writing is bad. Word choice, style, and storytelling all make it painfully obvious that this is a first novel. My husband and my friends can attest that I read multiple passages aloud just to hear the groans and/or rage that I could get in response. One response included an observation that failed romance novelists could probably write better.

After the first chapter I started trying to predict what would happen next. It was far too easy. In theory, there was a big twist at the end. Except nothing about it was remotely surprising. It wasn’t even interesting. It was so cliched that I was bored during the ending chapters. The sad thing was, they were the most interesting part of the book.

If there had been just one original idea in this book, it would have prevented a lot of my ire. As it stands, I doubt I will ever read anything by Aveyard again.

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Microtrends: The small forces behind tomorrow’s big changes
By Mark J. Penn with E. Kinney Zalesne
5/7 stars

Trends tend to be easy to spot, at least when they are on a large scale. Everyone knows that bellbottoms were popular in the 70’s, and grunge wasn’t widespread until the 90’s. It is much harder, however, to spot a microtrend. Penn defines a microtrend as a trend that affects 1% of the population. This is big enough to be a viable market and small enough that the market is most likely untapped. In Microtrends, Penn examines 75 different microtrends and their possible implications.

It should be noted that this book was published in 2007. A few of the things he pointed out, like the rise in bankruptcies and subprime mortgages, were incredibly relevant in the next few years in the economy.  A few others, such as stay at home dads and internet dating, are no longer really news.

What I found interesting about this book is the slightly historical perspective I could take on it. DIY doctors sure got a leg up thanks to WebMd. No, the pet industry didn’t explode quite like Penn thought it would, but boy, Greece and Italy sure had reasons to be concerned about the lack of jobs for their young people in 2007. Senator Obama was mentioned several times as and up and coming politician.

As any book written nearly a decade ago, Microtrends has some things that are relevant and some things that aren’t. That said, I think it is worth looking at a snapshot of the culture and seeing how it has developed.

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by Jonah Berger
6/7 stars

Why do some ads work when others don’t? What makes a video go viral? Why on earth is the McRib popular? These are questions that Berger addresses in Contagious. He posits the idea that trends and popularity are governed by six different factors in the product’s presentation to the world. He then goes on to examine these ideas through the studies he has done in relation to them. Not every element has to be in place for something to succeed, but the more you have the better your chances.

First of all, a product tends to catch on if is has social currency. Social currency means something to talk about with friends, something that boosts your social status, or even a feeling of exclusivity. It is also helpful if a product is triggered frequently. A trigger is something that you closely associate with the product. One of the examples was Kit Kat and coffee. It’s catchy and alliterative, but it is also linking Kit Kat with your daily coffee break.

Sharing is key. You want something to be more public than private. Some things are more public than others, but there are ways to boost your product’s visibility. One of the best ways to get people to think about or share something is through emotion. Not all emotions work, though. A sense of awe or happiness work really well, but sadness not so much. Anger or fear, however, those also work. If you can get a heightened response from someone on either end of the spectrum, you are more likely to get shares than if you make someone contented.

Another thing that increases sharing is to offer something of practical value. This one is self-explanatory, so I won’t delve into it. Finally, people respond strongly to stories. Stories are how humans have communicated for thousands of years. It makes sense to utilize them today as well

I would highly recommend this book to anyone even vaguely interested in trends, marketing, or psychology. It is fascinating and well written.

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Speaking in Public

Speaking in Public
by Reid Buckley
2/7 stars

I will not pretend that I enjoied this volume. Buckley does have some decent points about preparation and presence, but it is couched in such vitriolic language as to make the advice unpalatable at best and hypocritical at worst.

The most valuable advice I found in this book is never underestimate your opponent, either in argument or intelligence. Having a respect for the person you are debating is definitely important and will aid you in strengthening your own case.

There was a strong recommendation (or rather, imperative statement) that speakers should be well-read. I have no problem with this. In fact, I agree that it is valuable to read and have a background in literature. But Buckley questions the intelligence of  those who have not reached his prefered level of proficiency.

This is a consistent pattern in this book. Buckley makes an assertion and then throws aspersions on those who don’t conform to it. He uses phrases like “their sad, pathetic lives” in reference to factory workers for no other reason than, as far as I could tell, they work with their hands. He called a woman “as plain as dishwater” in the middle of an example of how confidence is a positive trait. In short, Buckley is mean and exhibits more than a little pettiness.

The parts of his advice that are not horrendously dated are useful (the book is nearly 30 years old).  His vocabulary is excellent and I read words that I haven’t seen in print in quite some time. However, this book is of limited use, so I will not recommend that you read it.

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The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit
By Charles Duhigg
6/7 stars

I found this book fascinating. Duhigg examines not only the psychology of habits, but also the neurology. The basic idea is that a habit involves four components: craving, cue, routine, and reward. If you can consistently change one of these components, you can change your habits. This applies to both good and bad habits.

Please note that “habit” is used in this book as a consistent pattern of behavior. This could mean what we think of as a habit (nail biting), a discipline (exercise), or something more serious (alcohol addiction). Habits in the large part control the majority of our behaviors, according to Duhigg, so it is not only valuable but imperative that we learn how to harness them.

The Power of Habit was well-constructed, well-researched, and engaging. It felt like the examples were what caused the conclusions Duhigg drew rather than the other way around. He discusses multiple facets of habit formation and retention, as well as factors that go into both.

I would recommend that anyone read this book. It is well worth your time.

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The Improvisation Edge

The Improvisation Edge

Karen Hough

3/7 Stars

This book examines how skills in improv can improve your ability to build trust and collaborate in creative ways. The main tenants are: accept other’s suggestions, explore and build on those suggestions, everyone contributes, and use mistakes as a platform. She also emphasizes how play is crucial to creativity.

All of these ideas are good, and all are very basic to stage improvisation. “Yes, and” is the first thing you learn in improv classes, and that is the first half of the book. The first half. Unfortunately, even with that amount of space, the author does not really go into the challenges to “Yes, and”. Her focus is on the argument that improv works, rather than improv works, and here is what you have to go through to achieve it.

Part of this is the examples she chose to include. Honestly, I could have used less “my company has big name clients and here are CEOs that go through our workshops”. That was a lot of the book. Unfortunately, these examples are almost exclusively about how enthusiastically said CEOs embrace the concepts in the book. What about when people are resistant to the idea of play in the workplace? If you don’t have active participation in this type of interaction, it just doesn’t work well. Attitude is very important when working with other people, and I felt like that could have been examined more closely.

I am not talking about outside challenges, by the way. That was covered beautifully and was probably the best part of the book. Improvisation is really a very good way to tackle unexpected circumstances and the latter third of the book looks at how to do so.

All in all, this is a decent book and would be worth reading for those of you who have no background in improv at all. If you have some experience, though, you will already be familiar with the ideas and implementations described here.

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by Ernest Cline
3/7 stars
[mild spoilers]

On the whole, I found this book under-whelming. I will fully admit that I had high expectations of Cline after Ready Player One. Cline’s first novel was well thought out, written, and executed. I would highly recommend that any nerd read it. Armada, however, I could take or leave.

In Ready Player One, the 80’s nostalgia had a point. It was central to the plot that people could out nerd each other. In Armada, it was not only not relevant, it was highly distracting. The 80’s references were there, but they made little sense. Sure, my friends and I try to out reference each other, but a major part of that is not telling the others what the reference is; they should just know. Sure, you can ask, but that means that you lose.

But in Armada, every single reference is explained. It felt like not only the characters but the audience was assumed to have no nerd cred whatsoever. Unfortunately, a good deal of the book was comprised of references, so this was not a minor nitpick to me.

As to the writing, I was a little disappointed. When I read a book, I try to predict what’s going to happen. I generally don’t expect to be right. Plot should not, in my opinion, be easy to determine. I like to be surprised. None of the plot twists were actually surprising. In fact, I was accurate in pre-determining every single major plot point. While it’s good for my ego to be as smart as the author, it doesn’t make for good reading.

Now for the mildly spoiler-y part. The aliens that are in the book are meant to be hyper intelligent. Why, then, are their methods incomprehensibly and transparently stupid? The interactions with the human race did not make any rational sense and they were supposed to be the most rational of beings.

All in all, I don’t think I’d recommend this book. If you want a book about aliens or first contact, I can suggest several other volumes to you.

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