January Book Report

January is done and gone already, and with it the five (!!) books I've already managed to read this year. I wrote earlier about my goal to read deeply in 2018. This is partially to make sure my reading life is aligned with my values overall and partially to make sure my reading doesn't eclipse other creative projects I'd like to tackle. 

I'm not sure if I'll keep up with these book reports every month all year, especially if I start reading fewer books each month, but this seemed like a good way to check in on how I'm doing with my goal of reading deeper.

Here's what I read in January and how each book fit my criteria for reading deeply. Check back to my original post about deep reading to learn more about the criteria I use when choosing "deep" books! This list contains affiliate links.

The Sentient Machine by Amir Husain

Deep reading category: Makes me think

Star rating: N/A. This one was so complex for me that I decided not to give it a star rating.

I'm a little bit of a conspiracy theorist at heart. One of my secret hangups is the fear that artificial intelligence (AI) technology is developing so rapidly, and oftentimes with so little care for the consequences, that it's going to get away from us one of these days. So when I heard about a book dedicated to exploring the future of AI and why we shouldn't fear it but should look for the benefits, I knew I had to read it. 

The Sentient Machine definitely made me think, but I disagreed with the author at nearly every turn. We just look at the world from such opposite viewpoints, it would have been almost impossible to get on the same page with the moral issues surrounding AI. Husain rushed headfirst into the benefits of AI based on ethical and moral assumptions that I, and I'm guessing many other Christians, don't agree with. He also referred to all the major religions as "myths" and, at one point, collective lies we tell ourselves as humans. So that's problem number one. 

Husain gave thorough breakdowns of what sentient AI could look like in different industries, but he never stopped to consider the ethical problem of basically creating a race of sentient robot slaves. Though Husain's arguments were interesting, they didn't have enough of a foundation to convince me of anything. 

Bottom line: Recommended for people who are already interested in AI or the future of technology. Pass for everyone else. 

A Simplified Life by Emily Ley


Deep reading category: Teaches something specific

Star rating: Two stars

I generally like Emily Ley's work, but this one left me disappointed. The goal of the book was to walk readers through different areas of their lives---marriage, parenting, wardrobe, spiritual life, etc.---and help them simplify each category so they could focus on intentional living.

Unfortunately, the whole thing was too shallow to be of much use to anyone. I've read blog posts that go deeper than some of these chapters! My (potentially too harsh?) opinion is that this was just another that was only written because a publisher saw potential in the author's platform. There was nothing new here, and it ended up being the opposite of deep reading.

Bottom line: Recommended for anyone who's literally never read a minimalism or simplicity blog or has never heard of Marie Kondo. Everyone else can probably skip this one.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: Five stars

I'm a sucker for fiction based on fairy tales or folklore, and this one didn't disappoint. The Bear and the Nightingale is set deep in the heart of the forest in medieval Russia. Vasya is a strange, wild girl who doesn't accept that her only options in life are to marry or join a convent. She and her siblings have grown up listening to fairy tales about the creatures who lurk in the forest, especially those about Morozko the frost demon, but Vasya has never feared the wilderness. When the household gains a strict new stepmother and a priest from Moscow after Vasya's father remarries, something begins going awry with the forest spirits. It's up to Vasya to find out why if her village is to survive the harshest winter they've ever known.

This is one of those books with a plot that's tricky to explain, but the writing is gorgeous. Take it from me, it's better than it sounds. This is the perfect book with atmosphere, and the rich history of Russia make it reminiscent of historical fiction along with its obvious fantasy bent.

Bottom line: I'm tempted to say everyone should read this, but it's an especially good choice for anyone who loved The Night Circus or who's interested in Russia and folklore.

Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday

Deep reading category: Teaches something specific; could help me write a novel

Star rating: Four stars

Perennial Seller is the ultimate meeting place between books about making art and books about selling that art. Holiday dives deep into what makes certain works timeless. Why do people return to Jane Austen's novels as beloved favorites hundreds of years later? What makes one book or song or painting stick while others are forgotten? The conclusions Holidays reaches are fascinating and something I'll be keeping in mind with my own creative projects.

I was afraid this book would tend too heavily toward business and marketing, but that wasn't the case. Holiday spent the first third of the book focusing on the creative process. I especially appreciated his stance that mediocre work will never become timeless. It's worth it to focus on the art and create something great. I also liked his view that creating and selling art is a cyclical process: some seasons will be devoted to creating, and some will be spent marketing. It's when we try to mix the two that we get into trouble. As someone who's trying to go deeper with my focus on creative projects this year, that was such a relief to read!

Bottom line: Recommended for anyone who ever wants to create something that lasts, or even create something that sells. I think it's a great starting point for creatives who are skittish about the marketing world, but if you're currently burned out on business-y books, you might want to save this one for later.

The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: Three stars

I cheated a bit on my deep reading goals with this one. The Rose and the Dagger is the sequel to The Wrath and The Dawn, which I finished in December. I didn't want to leave the duology unfinished for the whole year (even though I was pretty sure I wouldn't like the second book as much as the first), so I gave myself an exception. 

The series is a retelling of the Thousand and One Nights, with Shahrzad volunteering to become the next wife of the murderous king, Khalid, after her best friend is killed at his hand. It's hard to talk about the sequel without giving anything away from the first book, so I'll just say that it's a decent enough YA read. Once again, I was drawn in by the "retelling of a classic" spin, but the writing style really bothered me. I actually ended up skimming through much of The Rose and the Dagger just to catch the main plot points because the writing and POV switches were getting to be too much. 

Bottom line: It's a good middle-of-the-road choice for YA lovers, but nothing groundbreaking. (Though the series has a cult following, so I might be in the minority here.)

What have you been reading lately?