Newbery Reviews: 1939

The 1939 Newbery books includes the classic Mr. Popper's Penguins and the lovely Thimble Summer. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Medal Winner: Thimble Summer

When Garnet finds a silver thimble in the sand by the river, she is sure it’s magical. But is it magical enough to help her pig, Timmy, win a blue ribbon on Fair Day? (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This is one of those books that you could describe as charming. I love county fairs and kids having good old-fashioned fun, and that’s what Thimble Summer is all about. As with many of my childhood Newbery reads, I just wish I could remember more about it!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Mr. Popper’s Penguins

The Poppers unexpectedly come into possession of a penguin, then get a penguin from the zoo who mates with the first penguin to have 10 baby penguins. Before long, something must be done before they eat the Poppers out of house and home! (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This is probably one of the best-known Newbery books ever given the award (aside from the Little House on the Prairie series and A Wrinkle in Time), and for good reason. It’s funny, cute, and a little ridiculous. Mr. Popper somehow acquires a houseful of penguins, which he and his family must then deal with. Kids have loved this book for decades, and I don’t think that will change anytime soon.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Roundup: January 2017

The latest Newbery books, both new and old, that I've read over the past couple of months. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

In the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli spends her days working hard in the fields and her nights listening to her father spin fantastic tales about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon. Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense. But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was so lovely! Minli’s journey to find the Old Man of the Moon was such a fun way to string together the Chinese folk stories that author Grace Lin grew up reading. Plus there is beautiful full color art. This is a quick read that should be on your (or your child’s) TBR list.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Tangle-Coated Horse

Ella Young was born in 1867 in the little village of Feenagh, County Antrim. “From childhood I heard tales of ghosts, banshees, haunted castles, mischievous and friendly sprites, snatches of ballads, and political arguments….It was not until I came to Dublin and met Standish O’Grady, A.E., and Kuna Meyer that I realized what a heritage waited for me in Celtic literature. I read every translation I could get, learned Irish, and betook myself to Gaelic Ireland where, by turf fires, I could hear the poems of the Fianna recited by folk who had heard the faery music and danced in faery circles…”

This is one of the old, out of print Honor books that I’ve ordered through interlibrary loan. I’m finding that most of the books that fall into that category are short story collections, which I’m not a big fan of (as you might remember). This one, a collection of tales about ancient Ireland and the magical creatures that lived there, is not too bad, but I found myself getting bored much of the time. I have a feeling your kids will probably feel the same way about it.

Rating: Meh

Vaino

Tales and legends from Finland form the background to this story of a modern Finnish boy who is a student during the Finnish Revolution of World War I that freed that country from oppressive Russian rule.

Vaino was surprisingly enjoyable. Expecting another short story collection (see above), I was glad to find that the majority of this book consists of historical fiction focused on Finland in the early 20th century. There are short stories here about the fictional creatures and gods that populated ancient Finland (of course there are), but they are interspersed with the real-life events of the Finnish revolution during WWI and the adventures of Vaino, a young Finnish boy who gets caught up in these events. The intertwining of these two threads made this book work.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

In the Beginning

A thought-provoking collection of twenty-five stories that reflect the wonder and glory of the origins of the world and humankind. With commentary by the author.

You know I love Virginia Hamilton. This Newbery book of hers, In the Beginning, retells many of the world’s creation stories. The book is filled with great illustrations and explanations of these myths, including the various types of creation stories. I didn’t find this book as compelling as the last Virginia Hamilton I read, but I certainly don’t regret reading it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Year of Billy Miller

When Billy Miller has a mishap at the statue of the Jolly Green Giant at the end of summer vacation, he ends up with a big lump on his head. What a way to start second grade, with a lump on your head! As the year goes by, though, Billy figures out how to navigate elementary school, how to appreciate his little sister, and how to be a more grown up and responsible member of the family and a help to his busy working mom and stay-at-home dad.

If you’ve read as many Newbery books as I have, you start to realize that there are major themes for the different time periods in which they’ve given the award. As mentioned above, many of the early Newbery books are collections of myths and short stories, while the 70s and 80s brought a glut of historical fiction. The most recent decade or so has been marked by unique, easy-to-read writing styles and a branching out from the topics of previous years.

The Year of Billy Miller, a Newbery honor book from 2014, fits nicely into that description. It’s a sweet story about a wonderful, ordinary second grade year. In four consecutive sections, seven-year-old Billy learns how to get along with his teacher, his mother, his sister, and his father. Your second grader will almost certainly enjoy this book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

ARC: Jorie and the Magic Stones

Jorie and the Magic Stones is the beginning of a children's fantasy series by A.H. Richardson. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

When Marjorie went to live with her frosty maiden aunt, she couldn’t imagine the adventures she would have with dragons — good and bad — and all the strange creatures that live in a mysterious land beneath the Tarn. The spunky 9-year-old redhead forges an unlikely friendship with an insecure young boy named Rufus who lives with his crusty grandfather next door. When Jorie — for that is what she prefers to be called — finds a dusty ancient book about dragons, she learns four strange words that will send the two of them into a mysterious land beneath the Tarn, riddled with enchantment and danger. Hungry for adventure, the children take the plunge, quite literally, and find themselves in the magic land of Cabrynthius. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Jorie is a young girl with a lot of spunk, so when she goes to live with her strict, elderly aunt, of course she gets into mischief. Jorie teams up with the boy next door, Rufus, whom she drags along on her adventures. The two find a book full of dragons and words they can’t understand, which helps transport them to a world of magic.

Let me start by saying that I loved the characters in the real world. Jorie, her aunt, the housekeeper, Rufus and his grandfather–their interactions were so fun. Each character has a unique voice and personality, even the characters who don’t get enough page time to be fully fleshed out.

My one issue with the story is the fantasy world. Although the characters here are also interesting, I found the world itself a bit flat. The issue that I sometimes have with fantasy novels is that they fall quickly into cliches, and there was a bit of that issue in Jorie and the Magic Stones. I found myself looking forward to the time the characters spent in the real world, rather than in Cabrynthius. Still, the MG kids this novel is aimed toward may feel differently about that than I do.

For me personally, I thought this book was enjoyable but forgettable. But if you have a child who loves dragons and magic, they might want to give Jorie and the Magic Stones a shot.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Adult Fiction Mini Reviews

A widely varied collection of light adult fiction. Nothing challenging, but some fun picks in several genres. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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This is a widely varied collection of light adult fiction. Nothing challenging here, but some fun picks in several genres. (All summaries via Goodreads.com.)

Ella Minnow Pea

Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.

I wanted to love this book, but I definitely didn’t. It consists of overly formal writing that devolves as letters become outlawed on the island of Nollop. It’s silly–why did the government decide banishment was a good punishment for accidentally using one of the banned letters?–and the writing drove me nuts. I don’t see the purpose of using long and/or archaic words for the purpose of impressing others, and that’s what the writing in this book felt like to me. (Maybe I’m not really a word lover so much as a story lover.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Lizzy and Jane

In a desperate attempt to reconnect with her cooking gifts, struggling chef Elizabeth returns home. But her plans are derailed when she learns that her estranged sister, Jane, is battling cancer. Elizabeth surprises everyone—including herself—when she decides to stay in Seattle and work to prepare healthy, sustaining meals for Jane as she undergoes chemotherapy. She also meets Nick and his winsome son, Matt, who, like Elizabeth, are trying to heal from the wounds of the past.

I thought Lizzy and Jane would be a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, but it wasn’t, not really. It took some (very few) of the elements of that story and incorporated them into a very different romance story. Elizabeth is a New York City chef who has lost her spark. Desperate to get it back and salvage her job, she travels to Seattle to spend time with her father and her sister, Jane. Ever since their mother died of cancer, Elizabeth and Jane have had little to do with each other, but now that Jane herself has cancer, the two must find a way to get along and heal past wounds. (Also Elizabeth falls in love, but honestly, that almost seems beside the point here.)

The story of Elizabeth reuniting with her sister during Jane’s cancer treatment was rough. Both sisters had some very selfish, hurtful moments, and both had moments when they started to heal their relationship. I usually find romance-based novels a bit sappy, and I felt that way a bit with this book. Not having gone through cancer treatments myself or with any close friends or family, I was unsure whether or not that aspect of the book was well done.

If you want a sweet, heartwarming story, Lizzy and Jane might be a good choice. It wasn’t really for me, but it was a fun, quick read.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The ABC Murders

There’s a serial killer on the loose, bent on working his way through the alphabet. And as a macabre calling card, he leaves beside each victim’s corpse the ABC Railway Guide open at the name of the town where the murder has taken place. Having begun with Andover, Bexhill and then Churston, there seems little chance of the murderer being caught – until he makes the mistake of challenging Hercule Poirot to frustrate his plans.

You know I love me some Agatha Christie, and I’ve been reading through some of her Hercule Poirot books with my husband recently. As always, Agatha Christie will surprise you, even when you think you know it all. This is one of her most famous Poirot mysteries–a serial killer starts killing people alphabetically, leaving an ABC Railway Guide next to his victims, and Poirot must figure out who the killer is before he makes his way through the alphabet–and if you haven’t read it, I don’t want to spoil it for you by saying anything more.

This wasn’t my favorite Christie mystery ever, but I’m not sorry I read it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Classic Book Reviews: Uncle Tom’s Cabin + The Beautiful and Damned

I continue my adventures in reading the classics with Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Beautiful and Damned. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m continuing my journey of reading the classics that have somehow escaped me (you can read previous posts here and here). Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Beautiful and Damned were next on my list, simply because I happened to have audio book versions of each. (I admit to listening to each of them on 2x speed and using my 30 minute commute to force myself to listen to them when they got dry and boring.) Still, it’s easy to see how each of these books became classics, and I’m glad I read them.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

First published in 1852, this book follows the story of several slaves and the white people who surround them. When Mr. Shelby, the slave owner, finds himself in debt, he has to sell two of his favorite slaves–kind, patient Tom and the young child of Eliza. Eliza decides to run away with her child, while Tom agrees to be sold downriver. We follow both characters, along with the masters and fellow slaves they encounter on their travels.

I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. It is powerful and surprisingly modern for the time it was written. It’s easy to see why Abraham Lincoln reportedly cited it as the cause of the Civil War. Of course, there is a fair amount of racism still present (it was written in the 1850s, after all), and there is a strong case of White Savior Complex and a large group of simple, pure-hearted slaves, but I was amazed at what a case Stowe built for ending slavery. She focused on how deeply these mothers felt the loss of their children, husbands the loss of their wives, and often directs her narrative voice at the audience, urging them to think about how they would feel in similar circumstances. Stowe clearly had a deep Christian faith, as did many of her readers at the time, and she gathers evidence for how unchristian it is to own slaves. She even attacks those who justify slavery by describing how kind they are to their own slaves and how lost these people would be without guidance–Stowe rightly points out that everyone desires freedom above practically all else and how harmful it is to be even a kindly master.

If you can get past the historical racism inherent to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the length which at times feels dry, you should read this book. I’m glad I did, even though I doubt I’ll pick it up again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Beautiful and Damned

Embellished with the author’s lyrical prose, here is the story of Harvard-educated, aspiring aesthete Anthony Patch and his beautiful wife, Gloria. As they await the inheritance of his grandfather’s fortune, their reckless marriage sways under the influence of alcohol and avarice. A devastating look at the nouveau riche and New York nightlife, as well as the ruinous effects of wild ambition, The Beautiful and the Damned achieved stature as one of Fitzgerald’s most accomplished novels.

Fitzgerald is great at presenting a depressing, dark view of human nature, and that’s exactly what he does in The Beautiful and Damned. Anthony and Gloria selfishly mistreat each other and fall into straits as they can’t control their spending/drinking/vanity. It’s painful to see them do so much harm to themselves and each other, although it is of course very well written. If you’ve read The Great Gatsby, you’ll know what to expect from this book.

Rating: Meh

Newbery Reviews: 1938

In which Kate Seredy finally wins a Newbery medal and Laura Ingalls Wilder wins a Newbery honor. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Medal Winner: The White Stag
Finally Kate Seredy wins a Newbery Medal! This book of myths from the Hungarian culture is by the author of The Good Master and The Singing Tree, and if you remember how much I enjoyed those books, you’ll have an idea of how I felt about this one. I’m not usually a fan of myths, but these are well written and a beautiful look at a country to which I feel a deep connection.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

On the Banks of Plum Creek
This book is part of the Little House on the Prairie series, which I loved as a child. This one wasn’t my favorite, but it fits well in the series. Other than that, I honestly can’t remember much about this book–all of them seem to blur together. It may be time for a Little House on the Prairie readthrough!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Funny Memoir Roundup

In which I review Furiously Happy, Modern Romance, and The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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In today’s funny memoir roundup, there’s only one real standout book. Unfortunately, I’ve read a lot of meh memoirs recently that haven’t made much of an impact on me. (Spoiler alert–Furiously Happy is the best one on this list. It’s hilarious!)

Please note as you proceed that each of these books has a fair amount of sexual content and/or salty language. If that’s something that you want to avoid, skip this post and come back on Friday for a roundup of my latest children’s and YA reads!

Furiously Happy

In her new book, FURIOUSLY HAPPY, Jenny explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

According to Jenny: “Some people might think that being ‘furiously happy’ is just an excuse to be stupid and irresponsible and invite a herd of kangaroos over to your house without telling your husband first because you suspect he would say no since he’s never particularly liked kangaroos. And that would be ridiculous because no one would invite a herd of kangaroos into their house. Two is the limit. I speak from personal experience. My husband says that none is the new limit. I say he should have been clearer about that before I rented all those kangaroos.” (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Jenny Lawson is so funny (if you laughed at the snippet above, just know that the rest of the book is pretty much like that). I laughed out loud at several parts of this book, but I also appreciated her honesty about her struggles with mental and physical illness. My absolute favorite entry was about her sleep study (I read it, laughing hysterically, and then immediately read it again over my husband’s shoulder as I forced him to read it), but there are great chapters containing her late night iPhone notes, various adventures involving taxidermied animals, and the bright spots in the darkness of depression.

(As with Lawson’s last book, and anything Bloggess-related, be aware that this book contains a fair amount of salty language.)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Modern Romance

For years, Aziz Ansari has been aiming his comic insight at modern romance, but for Modern Romance, the book, he decided he needed to take things to another level. He teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and designed a massive research project, including hundreds of interviews and focus groups conducted everywhere from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to Wichita. They analyzed behavioral data and surveys and created their own online research forum on Reddit, which drew thousands of messages. They enlisted the world’s leading social scientists, including Andrew Cherlin, Eli Finkel, Helen Fisher, Sheena Iyengar, Barry Schwartz, Sherry Turkle, and Robb Willer. The result is unlike any social science or humor book we’ve seen before.

In Modern Romance, Ansari combines his irreverent humor with cutting-edge social science to give us an unforgettable tour of our new romantic world. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I don’t really like stand up comedy, so I’m not super familiar with Aziz Ansari’s work outside of Parks & Rec. Still, when I started listening to this on audio book, I expected a silly look at dating in the era of Tinder and Match.com. There is a fair amount of humor (especially in the audio book, read by Ansari himself!), but I was surprised to find a serious, well-researched book about finding love in the digital age.

Ansari and his research team do a great job of exploring the different experiences of various age groups and cultures in dating, love, sex, and marriage, and they are honest about the limitations of their studies. I found this book interesting, but ultimately forgettable. Check it out if you’re really curious about how romance has changed with the advent of the internet.

(As will probably surprise no one, there is a large amount of sexual content and swearing that may make readers uncomfortable. Be forewarned.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl

Being an introvert in a world that glorifies cool isn’t easy. But when Issa Rae, the creator of the Shorty Award–winning hit series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” is that introvert—whether she’s navigating love, work, friendships, or “rapping”—it sure is entertaining. Now, in this debut collection of essays written in her witty and self-deprecating voice, Rae covers everything from navigating the perils of eating out alone and public displays of affection to learning to accept yourself—natural hair and all.

A reflection on her own unique experiences as a cyber pioneer yet universally appealing, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girlis a book no one—awkward or cool, black, white, or other—will want to miss. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I don’t know much at all about Issa Rae, but I picked up this book over the Thanksgiving holiday on a whim. It contains funny, interesting stories about Jo-Issa’s childhood, life in Senegal and America, and understanding who she is and how her race affects her life. Mixed in with these stories are what the author calls “ABG [awkward black girl] guides.”

This book is interesting, and I definitely learned more about Senegal than I (sadly) knew before, but it didn’t make much of an impact on me. (As with the previous two books, there is a fair amount of sexual content/swearing that you may or may not enjoy.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Review: 1937

A quick review of Roller Skates, the 1937 Newbery medal winner. | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Medal Winner: Roller Skates

Growing up in a well-to-do family with strict rules and routines can be tough for a ten-year-old girl who only wants to roller skate. But when Lucinda Wyman’s parents go overseas on a trip to Italy and leave her behind in the care of Miss Peters and Miss Nettie in New York City, she suddenly gets all the freedom she wants! Lucinda zips around New York on her roller skates, meeting tons of new friends and having new adventures every day. But Lucinda has no idea what new experiences the city will show her…. Some of which will change her life forever. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This is yet another book I read as a child and remember very little about. What I do remember is Lucinda’s freedom in New York City, as she uses her trusty roller skates to explore. My note to myself at the time I read it was that this was a fun story, and I believe it. If only I could remember more about it! (Thus why I started this blog: I’m super forgetful about the books I read unless I write down what I thought about them.)

P.S. I recently (December 2016) re-read this book. It was just as fun–Lucinda is a great, spunky character–but there are a lot more sad moments than I remembered. Be aware before you hand this one off to a child.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Words in the Dust

Words in the Dust is a powerful middle grades novel about a girl coming of age in Afghanistan. | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Zulaikha hopes. She hopes for peace, now that the Taliban have been driven from Afghanistan; a good relationship with her hard stepmother; and one day even to go to school, or to have her cleft palate fixed. Zulaikha knows all will be provided for her–“Inshallah,” God willing.

Then she meets Meena, who offers to teach her the Afghan poetry she taught her late mother. And the Americans come to her village, promising not just new opportunities and dangers, but surgery to fix her face. These changes could mean a whole new life for Zulaikha–but can she dare to hope they’ll come true? (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I listened to this audio book because I was hoping to get a glimpse at the life of an average girl in modern-day Afghanistan. I was fascinated by my last look at the Arab world, and I wanted to have another perspective.

Unfortunately, this book doesn’t exactly focus on the average Afghani girl. Zulaikha has a cleft palate that causes others to tease or pity her, but when the Americans come to town, they might be able to help. I found Words in the Dust a bit dramatic and overwrought at times, as Zulaikha despairs over her looks and the people around her do nothing to help. I kept wondering how close the events of this novel were to actual Afghani girls’ experiences.

It’s not a bad story, but I think I’ll keep looking for a more subtle look into the experiences of teenage girls in the Middle East.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Self Help Roundup

I'm reviewing a collection of self help books, including Marie Kondo's smash hit, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. | NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m a sucker for certain kinds of self help–not the sappy kind, but the kind that pairs research with practical tips. These three books, to some degree, all fit that description, and they’ve all been on my recommended list for a while.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

If you haven’t heard of Marie Kondo’s book by this point, well… where have you been? This smash hit covers a topic that you wouldn’t think would be that interesting: tidying your house. A lot of people find this book a little “woo woo,” as Marie Kondo claims you should discard any items that don’t “spark joy” and that you should thank your belongings after a day of service. This didn’t bother me at all. I completely understand what the author means when she says your belongings should spark joy, and I found a lot of helpful tips in this book.

If you liked the idea of Year of No Clutter but, like me, couldn’t see yourself in the shoes of a hoarder, this book might be more your speed. I personally can’t wait to try Marie Kondo’s methods!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

I Know How She Does It

Balancing work and family life is a constant struggle, especially for women with children and ambitious career goals. It’s been the subject of countless books, articles, blog posts and tweets in the last few years, and passions run high in all directions.

Now Laura Vanderkam, the acclaimed time management expert, comes at the “having it all” debate by asking a very practical question. Given that we all have the same 168 hours every week, how do people who do have it all—women with thriving careers and families—use those hours? When you study how such women fit together the pieces of their lives, like tiles in a mosaic, the results are surprising. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’ve read a lot of books on time management and how women can or can’t “have it all” (usually defined as having a demanding career and raising a family). This book takes the perspective that you can “have it all,” even if you are working long hours.

I Know How She Does It has lots of interesting and surprising statistics about how people spend their time. The author uses time logs from various women with high-paying jobs and at least one child to show how they form a mosaic of their time, interweaving work, play, and family time, rather than taking each as an immovable chunk. This inspired me to keep a time log myself and look for ways to form a mosaic of my time.

My one regret is that this book is skewed toward upper middle class women. The author suggests that if you want to spend more time with your family, you can hire a housekeeper, or that if you want to spend more time working from home, you could hire a nanny. These choices simply aren’t options for women working lower-paying jobs. While I realize that the purpose of the book was to encourage women to enter high-powered jobs, traditionally held by men, I still found this aspect a bit irritating.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Mindfulness

Unlike Marie Kondo’s book, this one was actually a little woo woo for my taste, although I like the meditation ideas offered. The authors give you an eight-week plan for getting into several kinds of meditation, almost a sampler of the various options available. They emphasize the importance of mindfulness in everyday life, even in stressful situations.

While I found their ideas interesting, I didn’t think they were particularly groundbreaking, and in many cases, their views on mindfulness made me feel skeptical.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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