Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

I read this post by TBM To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish, and it got me thinking. As a mother of an aspiring writer and an aspiring writer myself, I will likely have to deal with this agonizing question in one form or another — sooner or later. Through my recent forays into creative writing I got a glimpse of what it’s like to be on the writer’s side of things. And though I am still light years away from any finished product that would require all that effort, I can still share my opinion of self-publishing as a reader.  And plenty of that I’ve got. I mean opinion, of course. And it’s not in favour of self-publishing. But let me tell you about my experience with self-published, or indie, books first.

Truth be told, I am not an adventurous reader — I prefer to stick to authors whose books I’ve already read. But it would be logical to assume that if that were really the case, I would have been stuck with Cinderella or Pinocchio stories for the rest of my life. So, whether I consider myself adventurous or not, I do discover new authors every once in a while, mostly by `hanging out` with book review blogs, through my local public library, the amazons, Kobo online store, and just browsing bookstore shelves and buying books with pretty covers.

My first indie book was In Her Name: Empire by Michael Hicks. And this time it found me for a change. It was free too. It happened in my early Twitter days, when I had 0 followers or something close to a 0. As soon as I announced to the world that I am a `bookworm,` with an eReader device, my following began to grow slowly, but steadily, consisting mostly of indie authors. Michael Hicks just happened to be among my first followers, an affable fellow, who enticed me with an offer of a free fantasy book. I had no idea it was self-published, nor did I care about the fact. I just downloaded it to my Kobo and ended up liking it so much, that I bought two more of his books. Those two turned out a little less exciting and I never finished them.

After that I tried reading several more indie authors only to discover that their books were ridden with typos and bad grammar. Needless to say, I lost my interest in them pretty quickly. There was another author whose books I was seeking out because I was intrigued by the hype on Twitter. But, guess what, the elusive writer didn’t seem to care whether his books could be easily downloaded. I just couldn’t find his books in the format compatible with my device ANYWHERE. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. But really why should I?

So, for now I stay away from indie books, and it’s not because I don’t believe there are good or even great indie authors out there. I just don’t have the time to separate the wheat from the chaff; I’d rather have publishers do that for me.

But despite my not-so-positive experiences, I believe there is bright future for self-publishing. Maybe it’s already here, if only just for a handful indie writers who either have a great self-promotion strategy or an amazing product. Not so long ago I told my son to try and self-publish his book on Smashwords, and even offered to do the editing and the cover art. (now I kind of question the wisdom of this offer :-))

If you are an indie author who dreams of being published, self- or otherwise, I wish you good luck – because you are going to need it.

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image via Wikipedia

The group read is part of the Once Upon Challenge hosted by Carl from Stainless Steel Droppings. This week’s reading covers the prologue through chapter six.  Next week we’ll cover chapters seven through fifteen. To join the group and read other discussions, please visit Stainless Steel Droppings.  

A thousand years of ash has fallen. A thousand years of oppression has befallen a people. A thousand years of rule by a “divine” ruler has gone unchallenged. That span of uninterrupted years is about to come grinding to a halt as Kelsier, bold thief and one of the Mistborn, gathers to himself a group of talented rogues and fellow allomancers to pull off his biggest job yet: the toppling of Lord Ruler’s reign.” Stainless Steel Droppings

1.  This first hundred or so pages was packed!  What things are standing out for you in the story thus far?

I was pleasantly surprised by the author’s ability to pull me into the story in a span of several first pages – and no metals or magic involved! Sanderson strikes a good balance between dynamic dialogue and descriptions, moving the story forward at a good pace, although I stumbled a bit at the scenes that involved the use of allomancy (novel-specific magic). From the very beginning, I was intrigued by the epigraphs preceding each chapter. At first I was under the impression they belonged to one of the main characters, Kelsier, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, which makes it even more intriguing.

2. What are your thoughts on the magic system that Sanderson is unveiling in this novel?

The magic system is quite elaborate, and it took me some time to actually get the hang of it. It helps that there is a glossary available at the end of the book. I am burning tin to know who the Lord Ruler really is – at this point he appears to be some kind of anti-god; I also want to learn more about Steel Inquisitors and what kind of magic they are using.

3.  Kelsier and Vin have held most of the spotlight in these first 6 chapters.  As you compare/contrast the two characters, how do you feel about them? Likes? Dislikes?

These two complement each other nicely and work well together, however, I am growing weary of Kelsier’s constant smiling and Vin’s constant frowning; besides in my opinion more varied facial expressions could add some depth to these two characters. I am yet to be convinced about Kelsier’s motives to overthrow the Lord Ruler. Don’t take me wrong, Kelsier has a great appeal as a character, but in my view he is far less interesting than Vin, whose internal conflict holds a promise of dazzling character development. At this point in the book, she is torn between her almost visceral fear of betrayal and her desire to belong, trust others and find her rightful place within Kelsier’s crew. Beneath her timid exterior, I sense a great curiosity, strong will and determination, which I am sure will play a much bigger role later in the book.

4. Finally, how would you assess Sanderson’s storytelling abilities to this point?

This is my first book by Brandon Sanderson, and I have nothing to compare it to. But so far I’ve enjoyed both the story and the characters. To me it seems like more of a plot-driven novel with a great entertainment value. I like how Sanderson builds the book’s fantasy world, doling out details bit by bit, and I am enjoying the flight of his imagination. In a nutshell, so far so good. If you like fantasy, you won’t be disappointed with this magical action thriller.

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First edition cover of The Country of the Blin...

First edition cover of The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Country of the Blind by H.G. Wells is another tale from the “Bedtime Stories” book that I’ve been reading for the Once Upon a Time challenge. The challenge is a great excuse for me to read more fantasy. I also began reading Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.

Once upon a time there was a valley in the Andes that was cut off from the rest of the world by a powerful earthquake. Before the earthquake, however, the valley got inhabited by settlers fleeing the Spanish rule. It was a marvelous place abundant with everything a man needed to survive and prosper save for one grave flaw: all children born in the valley were afflicted with blindness. Gradually, generation after generation, people of the valley adapted to their condition and did it so perfectly that they lost the very concept of sight, while their other senses, such as touch and hearing, had become keener, more developed. They built a set of paths in the valley that served as guides, helping them orient themselves in the environment. Naturally, they developed their own model of the world in accordance with their perceptions and with no room for seeing.

And so they led their contented and peaceful existence in total isolation, until one day, through a falling accident, a man from the outer world stumbled into the valley. His name was Nunez, “an acute and enterprising man,” who was quick to recall that “in the country of the blind, a one-eyed man is king.” But his hosts, or captors, were of a different mind. “Four days passed and the fifth found the King of the Blind still incognito, as a clumsy and useless stranger among his subjects.” As a decisive man of vision, Nunez tried persuasion, so these people could grasp the full measure of their inferiority. However, because the concept of seeing was alien to them, they found his talk of the bigger world and particularly that of sight disturbing and wicked. When all the words failed, the resourceful and unyielding Nunez resorted to force. Yet, although blind, the people of the valley proved capable opponents, and Nunez’s attempt at coup d’état only put the self-proclaimed king in a position of servitude and inferiority. Resigned to his fate, Nunez began to learn the blind people’s way and tried to fit in. He even fell in love and was about to marry a woman. But that would come at a price – his ability to see and enjoy all the wonders that came with it.

Wells wrote two versions of the story: in the original version Nunez ran off into the mountains and died. The second version has a different ending, but I haven’t read it.

When reading the story, I marveled at Wells’s ability to bring to life the fictitious world of the blind through great detail and vivid imagery. It’s one of the stories that I can read and re-read and never get tired of it thanks to Wells’s exquisite use of language and his appealing style.

Herbert George “H.G.” Wells (21 September 1866 – 13 August 1946) was an English author, now best known for his work in the science fiction genre. He was also a prolific writer in many other genres, including contemporary novels, history, politics and social commentary, even writing text books and rules for war games. Together with Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback, Wells has been referred to as “The Father of Science Fiction.” Some of his early novels, called “scientific romances”, invented a number of themes now classic in science fiction in such works as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes, and The First Men in the Moon. — Information via Wikipedia

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Photo credit: amandabhslater

The Once Upon a Time Challenge that I recently signed up for includes, among other things, reading of a novel by Neil Gaiman Neverwhere, and I felt it would be appropriate to kick off my series of posts for the challenge with one of Gaiman’s short stories, Troll Bridge.

The story begins when a seven-year old boy walks onto an old bridge inhabited by a troll:

“He was huge: his head brushed the top of the brick arch. He was more or less translucent: I could see the bricks and trees behind him, dimmed but not lost. He was all my nightmares given flesh.”

Even though the troll seems translucent at first, as the boy’s fear of the troll grows stronger, so does the solidity of the creature:

“He became more and more solid to me, more and more real; and the world outside became flatter, began to fade.”

The troll wants to eat the boy’s life, but the boy manages to convince the troll that eating him at this time isn’t a good idea, and he promises to come back when he is grown and has more to offer.

The second chance encounter occurs when the narrator is 15 years old, but this time he is with a girl who he thinks he loves. The scene allows us a glimpse into the narrator’s self-centered interior: he doesn’t even blink to offer his friend to the troll to save his own life. But the creature refuses to take the girl, because she is innocent, and the boy is not. Again, using his power of persuasion and assurance that he’ll be back, the boy escapes unscathed, but his friendship with the girl ends abruptly, and he feels no regret.

The narrator never talks directly about how these encounters affected him, but I think that fear of the troll and everything he represented have become the narrator’s obsession and eventually left his life in a shambles, while unwise choices and lost opportunities added to that. The story ends with a twist that is not completely unexpected, but makes perfect sense thanks to the author’s masterful use of foreshadowing. After reading this story, I will certainly check out Gaiman’s other works.

Troll Bridge was first published in Gaiman’s short story collection Smoke and Mirrors.

“Neil Richard Gaiman is an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre and films. His notable works include the comic book series The Sandman and novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. Gaiman’s writing has won numerous awards, including Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker, as well as the 2009 Newbery Medal and 2010 Carnegie Medal in Literature. He is the first author to win both the Newbery and the Carnegie medals for the same work.”   info from Wikipedia

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Emory's Gift by Bruce Cameron

I was so captivated by the adorable canine character in A Dog’s Purpose by Bruce Cameron, I absolutely had to read Emory’s Gift (not to say it wasn’t also because it featured an image of a cute grizzly bear on the front cover, maybe because in real life grizzly bears scare the dickens out of me, especially when met face to face.)

Emory’s Gift is a heartwarming story about a boy named Charlie Hall, who lost his mother to a terminal illness, and was about to lose his father – so absorbed was his father in his grief. Charlie is both the protagonist and the narrator, a very likeable one, if a tad unreliable. Since he is a teenage boy, torn by conflicting emotions and still grappling with the reality of his mother’s death, his perspective on things is often obscured, and we get a hint here and a hint there that his version of events may not be what it seems. Even at the end, it’s not clear whether Charlie Hall himself believes in the tale of a grizzly bear who was possessed of such uncanny intelligence and literacy that would put some humans to shame, and whose very existence shook the spiritual foundations of an entire town.

According to Charlie, Emory the grizzly is a very special bear. Not only does Emory save the boy’s life, he also helps revive and strengthen the relationship between Charlie and his father and bring closure and peace to the Hall’s family. A formidable predator becomes a messenger of love and harbinger of good things to come. Of course, the fact that a message of love is delivered by a grizzly bear sparks controversy and stirs up a small community where Charlie and his father live.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, a page turner chock-full of drama, suspense and humour; although at times Charlie’s erratic behaviour put a considerable burr under my saddle. 🙂 I also wish I could have read this book when my son was Charlie’s age – that would have surely eliminated some misunderstandings and helped better appreciate the inner world of teenage boys.

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Before I delve into the review proper, I have to tell you this. Don’t make a mistake I’d made when I picked up this book from a bookstore shelf, lured by a sticky note “staff’s pick.” Do your homework: Read the reviews. Or if you tend to read the reviews only after you’ve finished a book, like I do, heed my advice – GET KLEENEX. Under no circumstances read A Dog’s Purpose while enjoying a ride on public transit. Have pity on fellow commuters — don’t put them on the spot with outbursts of laughter followed by uncontrollable sobs. Don’t read this book before bedtime, because you’ll wake up in the middle of the night wondering whether you’ve got four legs or two and get all bent out of shape to discover you’ve only got TWO and NO TAIL TO WAG.

Don’t take me wrong. I am not saying you should not read the book.

You should read the book if you love dogs.
You should read the book if you have a dog.
You should read the book if you are thinking of having a dog.
You should read the book if you are thinking of never having a dog.
You should read the book if you are afraid of dogs.
You should read the book if you don’t have dogs, will never have a dog, and couldn’t care less if there were no dogs in the entire universe.

I am afraid you are not getting my subtle message.


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This book is an excellent resource for everyone who is writing professionally. Based on the book, I’ve created a 28-point list that I use as a reference/reminder in my on-the-job writing and editing, as well as other types of writing. I do a quick refresher every once a while by going through all points, and once in a while I re-read the entire book or select chapters. I suggest you take the time to read the entire book.

Here is my 28-point summary:
1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs
Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right. Place subject and verb at or near the beginning of each sentence. For suspense and tension save subject and verb of the main clause until later.
2. Order words for emphasis.
Place strong words at the beginning and at the end. Put the weakest point in the middle, strongest at the beginning and end.
3. Activate your verbs.
Strong verbs create action; save words, and reveal the players. (active voice) Avoid verb qualifiers (adverbs), use the most appropriate verbs that convey the right meaning.
4. Use both passive and active voice.
Use passive verbs to call attention to the receiver of the action. Active verbs move the action and reveal the actors. Passive verbs emphasize the receiver, the victim.
5. Watch the adverbs.
Use them to change the meaning of the verb. Do not use them if they repeat the meaning already contained in the verb. E.g. “He listened surreptitiously” to “He eavesdropped.”
6. Take it easy on the –ings. (verbs with –ings resemble each other, extra syllable, diluted effect)
7. Fear not the long sentence.
Tips: It helps if subject and verb of the main clause come early in the sentence.
Use the long sentence to describe something long.
Chronological order helps.
Use the long sentence in variation with sentences of short and medium length.
Use the long sentence as a list or catalogue of products, names and images.
Make every word count.
8. Establish a pattern, then give it a twist. Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain.(perfectly parallel “boom, boom, boom”, with a twist “boom, boom, bang”. E.g. “truth, justice, and the American way”.
9. Cut big, then small. Prune the big limbs, then shake out the dead leaves. (Make every word count.)
Cut any passage that does not support your focus.
Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes and scenes to give greater power to the strongest.
Cut any passage you have written to satisfy a tough teacher or editor rather than the common reader.
Eliminate every element that is not doing useful work.
Targets for cuts:
Adverbs that intensify rather than modify
Prepositional phrases that repeat the obvious
Phrases that grow on verbs: seems to, tends to, should have to, tries to.
Abstract nouns that hide active verbs. (consider vs consideration)
Restatements: a sultry, humid afternoon.
10. Prefer the simple over the technical. Use shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs at points of complexity. (defamiliarization, familiarization strategies to achieve a certain effect). Avoid using longer words where short ones will do.
11. Give key words their space. Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect. (avoid repetition, unless intended)
12. Play with words, even in serious stories. Choose words the average writer avoids, but the average reader understands.
13. “Get the name of the dog”. Dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses.
14. Pay attention to names. Interesting names attract the writer – and the reader.
15. Seek original images. Reject clichés and first-level creativity. Use straight language instead of a cliché
16. Riff on the creative language of others. Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language.
17. Set the pace with sentence length. Vary the length of the sentences in paragraphs.
18. Vary the length of paragraphs.
19. Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind.
One for power. E.g. The girl is smart.
Two for comparison or contrast. Eg. The girl is smart and sweet.
Three for completeness, wholeness, roundness. Eg. The girl is smart, sweet and determined.
Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.
20. Know when to back off and when to show off. When the topic is most serious, understate; when least serious, exaggerate.
21. Learn when to show, when to tell, and when to do both.
22. Learn the difference between reports and stories. Use one to render information, the other to render experience.
23. Show characteristics through detail, scenes and dialogue.
24. Juxstaposition. Put odd and interesting things next to each other. Help the reader learn from contrast.
25. Foreshadow dramatic events and powerful conclusions. Plant important clues early.  (Chekhov’s Gun: “one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it”)
26. To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers. To propel readers, make them wait.
27. Build your work around a key question. Stories need an engine, a question that the action answers for the reader.
28. Place gold coins along the path. Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle. (journalists – top heavy – most interesting points go to the top). In other words, place shining pieces strategically, to engage the reader and fan her interest.

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Thanks to Cassie’s recommendation, I am now enjoying this awesome book about writing fiction and all the personal drama of a novelist that seems to come with it. To tell the truth, I am in awe, stunned, speechless. It blows my mind just to think that a book about writing can have such profound effect on a person. As if the sky opened up, and, for a brief moment, I’ve glimpsed a reflection of something bigger than life. The sense of awe (and acute awareness of it) struck me even before I arrived at the following sentence: “This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of – please forgive me — wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered world.” Wow! That was Lamott’s intent all along! Not only am I delighted with her ability to produce such magic, but also with my ability to be part of it as a reader. Within every page, things are revealed that I didn’t know, didn’t pay attention to or couldn’t put into words before; with every sentence, my mental picture of writing and the reasons why we write is gaining more clarity, vibrancy and depth. I understand now why we love to write so much – it gives us a chance to transcend our personal limitations and connect with Beauty, Love, Compassion, God — even though to do it, we have “to open veins and bleed.”

Half-way through the book, when I was reading about creating believable characters and letting them do their own thing, a thought crossed my mind that it may be so that I haven’t got even an ounce of literary talent. I stayed with the thought long enough to look at it from this angle and that, waiting to see which emotion would rush to surface. Shockingly, it was relief. Now I can put my worries about “talent” (or lack of it) to bed and simply go about my business. This discovery, however, makes me wonder whether I will harbour any dreams of ever writing a novel. Oh, forget the novel, how about a short story for a start? Memoirs?.. At any rate, I’ve enrolled in Creative Writing 101 and decided to include in this blog a few posts about my experiences growing up.

Back to the awe-inspiring book. I actually don’t have much to add, except that the book is funny and insightful. You’ll learn a ton about being a writer and maybe even how to write fiction. You’ll learn about being a reader too, which is also important. (Just for perspective, along with Bird by Bird I was also recommended Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. No doubt, it’s a good book, very well written, but after reading the first 20 pages, I gave it up, because I was bored out of my skull. Maybe some other time.) Bird by Bird is like a breath of fresh air: lighthearted, humorous, delightful. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

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If you are reading this blog, chances are you are not a monk or a nun living in a monastery, or a hermit in a cave practicing austerities. Every day you face challenges — traffic jams, a demanding job (or lack thereof), an overbearing boss, disturbing news in the media, just to name a few. Small wonder many of us feel stressed and anxious most of the time. But what can we do? We can’t control the environment, the boss, or the economy. How do we handle these pressures? If you are looking for an answer to this question, Joyful Wisdom by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is the book for you. In it, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche talks about the foundations of Buddhism; explains and clarifies some Buddhist terms, whose nuances might have been lost in translation; and provides detailed and clear instructions on meditation practice. Using examples from his own experience and that of his students, he shows how to deal with disturbing emotions, such as anger, fear, anxiety. He suggests that instead of resisting or trying to get rid of them, we should welcome them as focus for our meditation that will help us get acquainted with the nature of the mind and its infinite power.

Throughout the book, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche tells stories of the Buddhist tradition. My favourite one is about a group of hermits who lived in seclusion in the mountains. They spent most of their time in meditation. But because their existence was so peaceful and offered little by way of difficulties or challenges, every once in a while they would go to the nearest village and acted as if they were crazy. Such silly behaviour provoked the villagers, who expressed their displeasure, sometimes in physical terms. But the hermits welcomed these experiences as supports for their practice. Lucky for us, our lives are replete with such supports — no need to agitate the good villagers. 🙂

I especially enjoyed the parts of the book where Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche talks about his childhood experiences: how he was overwhelmed by anxiety and struggled with the practice, and about the fears that he had to overcome to achieve his present state of calm and relaxed mind and the ability to help others. This was like a revelation to me, because I always pictured Buddhist teachers and masters as perfect, born into this world with inherent knowledge and wisdom of the masters that came before, and, therefore, superior and distant, like stars. I don’t question inherent knowledge and wisdom, but at least now the distance between them and me seems a bit shorter.

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I should have called my post “If you want to cry, read Kelly Cutrone.” The book is about a tough life of a publicist/warrioress in New York, thriving in the field of fashion public relations.

While reading the book, I had to suppress the urge to erase it entirely from my Kobo. Not because it made me angry or frustrated (rather a bit itchy and scratchy), it just seemed so irrelevant and outlandish, it might have been written by an alien from a faraway galaxy. My curiosity, however, always gets the upper hand. So, I kept plugging along motivated by the thought that sometimes it behooves us to get a different perspective on things, even if it seems totally foreign.

A different perspective wasn’t the only thing I struggled with. The writing style and tone of the book are rough and uneven. It’s partly a memoir, partly ramblings about spirituality and a woman’s role in the society, partly a manual on how to get and keep a job in fashion PR industry, and, finally, partly specific requirements that you need to meet if you want to work for Kelly Cutrone. The tone of the book ranges from encouraging and supportive to patronizing and condescending. Therefore, I am dubious as to author’s genuine respect and appreciation for her audience. Obviously, I am not a part of the target segment, which I would define as “aspiring female publicists or fashion PR wannabes, young and ambitious.” Conversely, I am a 40-something woman, who moved to Canada from Russia 14 years back, on my own, husbandless at the time, with my nine-year old son in tow. Unlike Cutrone, I never used drugs and can’t boast to have had any addictions that I’ve successfully overcome, which would pave my path to spirituality. Speaking of which, I do not belong to any organized religion, but am a strong believer in the law of attraction and, though inconsistent, tend to gravitate to Buddhism. (This is just to give you my perspective on things, for objectivity’s sake.)

But this is not about me, after all. Based on the book (as a single source of info about the author in my neck of the woods) I do get that she is an exceptionally talented entrepreneur, a publicist extraordinaire, who has a lot of respect for herself and takes pride in her own accomplishments. I totally understand and sympathize, because I can’t even imagine how big my head would grow, if I had to go through all that personal drama and end up a top female alpha wolf in that cutthroat fashion jungle. It makes for a good story though, and I appreciate that. But no matter how extraordinary the author, it can’t make up for the book’s obvious flaws. And by the way, if you can’t stand seeing the “F word” in print repeatedly, consider yourself warned.

It’s my rule not to write about the books I didn’t like. This book, however, is an exception, although I can’t say I hated it or something. In spite of its flaws, the book can not be denied some  redeemable qualities, like authenticity and candor. I also share Cutrone’s idea of empowering women, and no matter how much I disagree with some of her other views, I totally support that following one’s heart with 100 per cent commitment eventually leads to success. I only hope that young women don’t make a conclusion, based on the book, that the only way to accomplish anything in this world is by being a “bitch” clad in black every day of the year. 🙂 Also, it’s only fair to add that I admire Cutrone’s courage, vision and focus and her seemingly infinite capacity to remain true to herself and speak her mind without fear of consequences.

If you’ve read the book and have an opinion, don’t be shy to share it. Did you love the book or did you hate it? I suspect there are a lot of people who love it, as well as those who totally hate it. That’s  publicity at its finest.

Related posts:

Thought Provoker: Kelly Cutrone – If You Have to Cry, Go Outside (instantaffection.blogspot.com)

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