Charlotte’s Top 5 Must Reads for December

The Big Ideas Box

Ya’ll know I’m a huge fan of the award winning Big Ideas Simply Explained series by DK Publishing so listen up – The Big Ideas Box has landed in time for the holidays and it’s pretty much the best gift ever for anyone with a fascination for human behaviour.

The Big Ideas Box contains The Psychology Book, The Sociology Book and The Philosophy Book, a social sciences hat trick that explains, in regular people’s words, why we do what we do with infographics, clever illustrations, biographies of the most influential scientists, and timelines and In Context sidebars that make it super easy to see what came before and what came after that contributed to or contradicted each idea. These aren’t exact sciences, like math, so sometimes we’re still trying to figure it out.

For example, in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman initiated some serious debate about the roles women are conditioned to play in society – seems to me we’re still arguing about that more than two centuries later.

What’s really cool is the way each discipline interconnects. Or to paraphrase: psychology studies the mind and behaviour, sociology studies why people do what they do, and philosophy offers a road map that brings the two together. That’s why it’s a set!

Bonus: each book offers snappy one liners you can posit over turkey if you want to mess with Uncle Jim who has had a single malt too many: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature.” Karl Marx. Or, “Life will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.” Albert Camus. That’ll heat up your holiday dinner conversation.

DK Books Big Ideas

Star Wars Be More Vader and Star Wars Be More Yoda

So you have a Secret Santa thing at work, right? And you’d like to wrap up something more creative than another bottle of Barolo? Well, I’ve got just what you need, as usual: Be More Vader and Be More Yoda.

Be More Vader: Assertive Thinking from the Dark Side, asks you to climb your corporate ladder by asking, “What would Vader do?” Five chapters from Starting Out to Becoming a Leader offer take-no-prisoners advice with a brass-knuckle quote from Vader and a host of other nasty galaxy leaders.

To wit: Master the power of self-confidence or as Vader says, “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” Don’t bring problems; bring solutions. Working with dithering colleagues? “Asteroids do not concern me. I want that ship, not excuses.” Darth Vader to Admiral Piett.

But while you’re Vadering your way to greatness, you might need to explore mindfulness as a way to chill and who better to help you find peace and purpose in your life than that old wisdom master Yoda?

Be More Yoda: Mindful Thinking from a Galaxy Far Far Away invites you to set aside your impossible deadlines and struggling relationships and ask yourself, “What would Yoda do?”

Following the same format as Be More Vader, Be More Yoda’s five chapters, from Seeking Mindfulness to Unleashing Your Mastery, offer sage advice coupled with inspiring quotes from Yoda and other also-thoughtful-and-way-nice Galaxiers.

Believe in your abilities. Or as Yoda points out, “Always with it you cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”

Don’t be too hard on yourself. “. . . many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Obi-Wan Kenobi. And don’t be afraid to fail. “The greatest teacher, failure is.” Yup. Yoda.

These nifty little how-to books are sold separately so you can pop the appropriate one into the Santa Box or go all out and wrap them up as a set.

Be More Yoda and Be More Vader

Once Upon a River

Diane Setterfield’s latest is a spellbinding tale, part magic, part myth, part possibility and one of the most compelling stories I‘ve read since I can’t remember.

It’s a cold, damp night in 1887 – winter solstice, the longest night of the year – and the patrons of the Swan Inn, a 600-year-old pub in the small English village of Radcot, on the bank of the Thames, are telling stories, some real and some imagined.

The front door bursts open and a near-dead man staggers in, the lifeless body of a little girl in his arms.

Rita, the local nurse and midwife, declares the girl dead and gently tends to the man’s injuries. Several hours later, for reasons she can’t explain, Rita is drawn back to see the girl. She’s not breathing. She has no pulse. Her pupils are dilated and her skin is a waxy white. The girl draws a shallow breath. And then another.

Who – or what – is she?

As the story unfolds, three families step up to claim her. A wealthy woman knows she’s her daughter, kidnapped two years before. A farming family, stunned by their son’s affair, welcomes the girl as their granddaughter. And the parson’s housekeeper thinks the child is her younger sister.

The Swan’s storytellers have another suggestion: perhaps she’s the daughter of the maybe-mythical ferryman who patrols the Thames, carrying those who have drowned before their time back to the living side, and escorting those whose time has come to the other, eternal side.

The child, who is mute, can’t belong to everyone. But she can shape who they will become.

Once Upon a River is a gob-smacking story of love, loss, betrayal and family secrets as dangerous as the Thames itself. But in Setterfield’s deft hands it’s also a testament to the power of storytelling to explain the unexplainable – for better and for worse – and give our lives meaning.

Once Upon a River


Dumplin’, by New York Times best-selling author Julie Murphy, is a classic coming-of-age story – sorta Revenge of the Nerds only with fringe-y female outliers.

Teenaged Willowdean Dickson – called Dumplin’ by her mom, Rosie, and Will by her friends – is smart, funny, loyal and, by her own admission, fat. OK, not as fat as Millie, but fat enough to be the brunt of side eye and catcalls.

Will lives in Clover City, Texas. Nothing much happens in Clover City except for the annual Clover City Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant – Rosie was crowned back in 1977, her single greatest accomplishment. It is a VERY BIG DEAL and Rosie now runs the event that consumes the entire town’s attention every year.

Will and her best friend, all-American-beauty Ellen, have been tight since they were little kids and Will’s Aunt Lucy (who died at 36 weighing 495 pounds) bonded with El’s mom over a compulsive adoration of all things Dolly Parton.

Will works at Harpy’s, a burger joint, alongside Bo. Will thinks Bo is hot, and she is not, so when it becomes pretty clear that Bo is attracted to more than her awesome personality she shuts down. She and Bo can’t be, you know, girlfriend and boyfriend, because the kids at school would never stop laughing.

When Will sets out to take back her confidence by entering the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant, the school’s other three misfits, fatter Millie, Amanda, who has one leg shorter than the other and Hannah, who has snaggle teeth like a horse, decide to enter, too.

And neither Will and her crew nor the town of Clover City will ever be the same.

Will’s fight to finally see herself as worthwhile and worthy of happiness has been done before. But Murphy creates believable characters and her breezy writing style keeps you turning the pages. It’s not literature but it is entertaining – watch for the Netflix film featuring Jennifer Aniston, Danielle Macdonald, and Dove Cameron, as well as a soundtrack from Dolly Parton.


The Accidental Beauty Queen

OK, pageant, part two. The Accidental Beauty Queen, Teri Wilson’s latest, is a frothy, unapologetic rom com that celebrates beauty inside and out with wit, charm and style.

Twins Ginny and Charlotte may look identical but they are, in fact, chalk and cheese. Ginny has always been the pretty one; Charlotte, the bookish, nerdy one.  Ginny’s a sponsored Instagramer who has been chasing beauty pageant crowns since forever. Charlotte is a librarian. ‘Nuff said.

Oh. And the twins’ mom, who died of ovarian cancer when they were five, was a beauty queen.

Ginny is in Orlando, competing for Miss American Treasure, her last chance because 30 is the cut off. She asks Charlotte to join her for moral support and Charlotte grabs at the invite since she can spend pretty much the entire week at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I mentioned she was nerdy, right?

But the day before preliminaries start, disaster strikes. Worst thing ever. Ginny gets an allergic reaction to something she ate, her face swells to the size of a watermelon, the emerg doc says she’ll be out of commission for at least three days and there is nothing to do but browbeat Charlotte into standing in for her during the prelims.

Ginny gives Charlotte a full on makeover – hair extensions, false eyelashes, padded, push-up bras – and while she hides out in the hotel room, Charlotte learns to walk in heels, wear a bikini on stage and make nice with the rest of the contestants.

She also meets one of the judges and before you know it, love is in the air; problem is he thinks she’s Ginny.

This is chick lit so of course the twins experience newfound self-awareness, self- assurance and a brand new appreciation of each other’s strengths. Oh. And there’s a happy ending.

But what The Accidental Beauty Queen isn’t is a predictable pageant put down. The contestants may look like breathing Barbies but they are, in fact smart, level headed, independent professionals.

And the pageant behind-the-scenes feel authentic, probably because Wilson served as a judge last year in the Miss United States pageant in Orlando and has since judged in the Miss America system.

All in all, this is a splendid post-holiday party, sleety Sunday read.

The Accidental Beauty Queen

Written by Charlotte Empey with Illustrations by Mark Scheibmayr

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