September 2021 Book Reviews: Serenity, Black Box Thinking, Hope Rising, The Cost of My Faith, Steal Like an Artist

September was mostly a nonfiction month, with the surprise sci-fi novel thrown in for kicks and giggles 🙂

As mostly a nonfiction mood reader, that wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was: One of the books made me cry buckets of tears. (And I’m not usually a cry-er, especially when it comes to books)

To see how I did this last month with my To Be Read list, keep reading!

(To learn more about the Tic-Tac-TBR Game, join our Brilliant Writer Merry Band and you’ll get access to the game recordings inside our app!)

September 2021 Book Reviews

Personal Ratings & Review

I use 2 criteria to rate every book on a scale of 1–5:

  1. Content: the ideas in this book are interesting, edifying, and worth learning.
  2. Craftsmanship: the work is polished, skillful, and well-written.

This month, I these were the prompts I had on the tic-tac-toe board:

And here is the book list:

F = Fiction. N = Nonfiction.

Penalty List

  1. Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen: A retelling of a folktale about the fourth daughter in a family of seven daughters, who disguises herself as a man in order to become a merchant and save her family.
  2. Money by Jacob Goldstein: The history of how money, a “made up thing” came to be.
  3. Medicus by Ruth Downie: A crime novel set in the Roman Empire — an army doctor must investigate the deaths of local prostitutes.
  4. Skyward by Brandon Sanderson: A 17-year-old girl who dreams of being a pilot discovers a wrecked starship that appears to be sentient.

I read 50 pages of Money and Medicus, but haven’t finished them. I may finish Money, but the probability for finishing Medicus is not high 😉 So I didn’t pass the requirement to read 50 pages of all of the books on the penalty list this time.

Tic-Tac-Toe Prompts

F=Fiction, NF=Nonfiction

  1. Prompt: Second chance book
    Black Box Thinking (NF)
    : Why and how people learn from their mistakes, using examples from medicine, flight, cults, and more.
    How I did: Finished. Technically, this wasn’t fiction, so there wasn’t a “main character,” but I decided to stretch the prompt to include “male narrators of nonfiction books.” So there 😉
  2. Prompt: Fit a random song vibe — Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake”
    Hope Rising (NF): Stories from Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch, a place to heal horses and children who’ve been beaten down by life.
    How I did: Finished in one day.
  3. Prompt: No face on the cover
    Steal Like an Artist (NF): A collection of ideas
    How I did: A re-read, finished in one day.
  4. Prompt: International
    Serenity (F): When a rogue starship pilot takes on a pair of mysterious siblings, he finds the entire space governing body (the Alliance) after him in order to retrieve the traumatized and mentally unstable younger sister.
    How I did: Already knew the story, a few days to finish because I’m not as motivated with fiction these days…
  5. Prompt: Food
    The Cost of My Faith (NF): The true story of Jack Phillips, the cake baker whose story set off a national controversy that landed in the Supreme Court.
    How I did: A couple days to finish.

Review of Books Read

Warning: Light spoilers ahead! They will be marked with a [SPOILER] sign.

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed (NF)

“True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.” — Black Box Thinking

  1. ★★★★
  2. ★★★★

Some books inspire you to jump into action, and some books make you question yourself. This book is more of the latter. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Human beings are often in danger of being too arrogant (see thoughts on the book Serenity, below), and it’s good to be reminded now and then that we make mistakes, but we can learn from those mistakes as long as we don’t ignore them.

And that’s what Black Box Thinking is all about.

Using fascinating (and sometimes heartbreaking) examples from the fields of medicine, plane flight, cults, and more, Syed explains how and why people learn (or don’t learn) from their mistakes and how you can avoid common mental errors that will hold you back or even threaten your life and future.

If you’ve ever wondered why people keep making the same mistakes, why you sometimes feel like you’re stuck in one place, and how to learn from the past and improve, check out this book 🙂


Hope Rising by Kim Meeder

Hope Rising by Kim Meeder (NF)

“We didn’t focus on what was, but what could be.” — Hope Rising

  1. ★★★★★
  2. ★★★★

I’m not much of a crier, but I cried multiple times through this book. Just saying.

Hope Rising isn’t so much one story as a collection of stories by Kim Meeder, the owner of a special horse ranch designed to rescue and rehabilitate broken horses and broken children.

Meeder herself experienced horrific trauma when her parents died of murder-suicide when she was a child. To comfort her, Meeder’s grandmother bought her a pony, and when she grew up, Meeder decided to pay it forward and bring together abused and hurting children with horses given a second chance at life.

So many of these stories resonated with me, for reasons perhaps beyond what I can explain in words. If you’ve ever been hurt by life, if you love horses, or if you just want to read some stories about ordinary, kind people and the animals they love (who love them too), check out this book.


Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon (NF)

“Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style.” — Steal Like an Artist

  1. ★★★
  2. ★★★★

Steal Like an Artist is a quick read, unusual in its content and construction, designed to help inspire you to be more creative. Kleon’s book reads as a collection of short blog posts, but most of them are good reminders of what it means to “steal,” find, gather, remix, and use ideas to create your own original products.

And that’s really all I have to say about this book. It’s similar to Daniel Coyle’s Little Book of Talent, but more theoretical and less practical-application, which is fine in certain situations. The content is fine, but I think I was more inspired by the way the book is written/constructed than anything:

Steal Like an Artist shows you that you don’t HAVE to follow a certain model for writing books. Do things your way 🙂


Serenity by Keith DeCandido

Serenity by Keith DeCandido (NF)

“…As sure as I know anything, I know this: They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground, swept clean. A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people — better.” — Serenity

  1. ★★★
  2. ★★★

Serenity is the novelization of the eponymous movie that closed the ill-fated space-Western TV series, Firefly.

The story of a mysterious and hunted brother and sister who take refuge on an outlaw spaceship run by a jaded and world-weary captain and his motley crew of misfits.

But their arrival paints a massive target on the little ship Serenity, named after a horrific battle in a doomed rebellion attempt. And the powerful governmental network known as the Alliance wants to steal the sister back before she reveals a devastating secret…

It’s been a while since I’ve read or consumed science fiction. I enjoyed it back in the day, but these days, I’m more interested in learning real life facts, so I tend to read more nonfiction.

But when I saw a couple youtubers review the movie version of Serenity, I decided to pick up the book. The part that caught my attention specifically was the two siblings, Simon and River:

River is a genius who has been captured by Alliance for scientific experimentation. Her doctor brother Simon is the only one who cares enough about her to decipher her disguised written cries for help, and he sacrifices everything he has to rescue her and keep her safe. I’m a sucker for stories like that.


Aside from the portrayal of a strong sibling bond, another aspect of Serenity that intrigued me was its commentary on humanity’s hubris when it tries to play God. (Let’s just say there’s only two ways that will end, and neither is good)

The Alliance didn’t just torture River in the name of “science,” it also conducted an experiment on a group of people living on a faraway planet that went horribly wrong. There’s a lot to think about here, and it’s an entertaining story, for the most part. I don’t regret reading it.


The Cost of My Faith by Jack Phillips

The Cost of My Faith by Jack Phillips (NF)

“In some ways, for me, Masterpiece Cakeshop is like a mission field.” — The Cost of My Faith

  1. ★★★★★
  2. ★★★★

The Cost of My Faith is a controversial story, and I almost didn’t include it in this list, because of its explosive potential.

But if we can’t write about our thoughts, what can we write about?

So this is the autobiography of Jack Phillips, the Colorado cake designer who got caught up in a huge nearly-decade-long controversy that began when Phillips declined to design a wedding cake for a gay couple and they sued him. The case went all the way up to the 2018 Supreme Court decision on freedom of religion and artistic expression.

There are many things that can be said and have been said about this story (ha! See that passive voice, there?) but the main feeling that this book produced in me was sadness. Sadness that people can be so nasty when they disagree with other people.

We human beings really need to be careful about not over-estimating our own morality and intelligence. Those who think the highest of themselves usually end up being the ones who do the most damage to themselves and to others in the end.

That said, I think it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that if you see someone acting like a bully (personal attacks, crude language, death threats, physical violence, attempts to destroy your ability to make a living) in service of any particular idea, you had better really question that idea.

On the flip side, if you really think you are right on any issue, don’t do yourself the disservice of personally attacking people who disagree with you — it makes your ideas seem illegitimate because your defense of them is so vindictive.

Writing-wise, I think the story was told well. Phillips tells the story not of the controversial years, but also his background — how he got into cake art in the first place, which was quite interesting.

I only wish I could find out what happened next: he ends on a bit of a cliffhanger because his story is still ongoing (after being sued twice, at time of publication, Phillips is going through a third round of the same thing).

Maybe there will be a sequel…but we shall see what happens. May we learn from those who conduct themselves with integrity, kindness, and gentleness, and not take the way of vitriol, violence, and spite, nor believe that “might makes right.”


Nonfiction: I read two nonfiction books that triggered strong emotions in me — Hope Rising had me tearing up at the brokenness of the world and the goodness of people who do what they can to help the suffering, animals and children alike. And The Cost of My Faith saddened me with its account of the unkindness of people who disagree on sensitive political issues.

Other than those two, Steal Like and Artist was a nice reminder / inspiration to be creative, and Black Box Thinking helped me learn more about how we humans make mistakes and deceive ourselves…and how to be aware of our mental weaknesses in order to counter them.

Fiction: Serenity was a good addition to the fiction queue this month. Some months I don’t read any fiction at all, so much of it is either boring or disappointing, but Serenity was a solid quick read, with some interesting deeper ideas to explore.

And that’s it for this month’s TBR wrap up!

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