REVIEW: The Shadowland – Elizabeth Kostova

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Disclaimer: An advance copy of this book was provided to me via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Elizabeth Kostova, best known for The Historian, returns to Eastern Europe in her latest novel. Where The Historian dealt as much in myth as in history–tracing the legend of Dracula out of history to discover his modern-day existence–The Shadow Land sticks to a story that is all too real.

Alexandra, a young American, arrives in Bulgaria for an English teaching job, driven by the memory of her dead brother who had picked Bulgaria as his favorite country on their family’s map. In a movie-worthy set-up, she ends up at the wrong hotel and with another family’s bag mixed in with her own. To her horror, she finds that the bag contains a funeral urn, and she has no idea who the family is or where they might be.

Lucky for her, she steps into the exact right cab. Her driver, Bobby, speaks English, is honest and is willing to go out of his way to help get the urn back to its owner. Especially when it becomes clear that someone else is looking for the urn too. Someone powerful, and not very nice.

As they follow the leads that they can discover, they gradually piece together the history of the musician, Stoyan Lazarov, whose remains are in the urn, from World War II and the closing of Bulgaria’s borders through the Cold War era, when Stoyan was one of the many Bulgarian citizens imprisoned by their own government and was put to work in a brutal labor camp.

Stoyan’s story is compelling, and Bobby and Alexandra’s journey and the people they meet equally so. Unfortunately, Alexandra herself seems to be the real weak point in the story. Her backstory only has the most tenuous connection to the events of the story itself and serves more as a distraction than an enhancement. You keep waiting for her brother’s death to mean something in terms of the larger story, but in the end it feels like it was created only for the sake of allowing her to come to the table with a tragedy, so that she and the Bulgarian characters can relate to each other. I think, in the end, too much time was given to that part of her story in proportion to the amount of impact it actually had on the overall plot.

Similarly, her “romance” is also a weak point. It was entirely unnecessary, and really added nothing to the story except for allowing Kostova to add a little bit of “magic” to the story. I suppose the fact that Alexandra falls in love at first sight with Stoyan’s son is part of her motivation to chase him back and forth across the country to give back the urn, but it just felt extra and also like it cheapened the story a bit.

Overall, though, the rich description of Bulgaria, both modern and historic, and the slow reveal of Stoyan’s sad story, make the book a worthy read for anyone interested in reclusive country or historical fiction in general.

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

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Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This book has been one of the most talked about books coming into this year, and after reading it, I can see why. It’s not like anything I’ve ever read before, but I also found it to be really easily readable. The book plunges you into its unique format with no introduction or explanation, and if you went in totally blind, I can imagine it would be really bewildering. Having read a short synopsis before diving in, I was able to pick up on what was happening as soon as I was told who was speaking. But until that point when I wasn’t sure what I was reading had to do with Lincoln, it was a bit disorienting.

The book alternates between short quotes from historical accounts of the period covered by the book and chapters narrated by a chorus of undead souls who are stuck between life and the afterlife. The book itself covers the death by illness of Lincoln’s young son and the night that Lincoln spent in his crypt just after his funeral.

The history chapters are really interesting for the way they highlight how unreliable even firsthand accounts of history can be. For example, there is a whole chapter dedicated to descriptions of the moon on a particular night. After reading it, one still doesn’t know whether the moon was full, just a sliver, obscured by clouds or whether there was no moon at all.

The afterlife chapters stand in stark contrast to the historic chapters. The are self-obsessed and the landscape and citizens of the afterlife are grotesque and surreal. Only the arrival of the little Lincoln is able to snap the dead out of their self-obsession. He refuses to move on while his father is near, but the dead know that a child who doesn’t leave quickly suffers a terrible fate.

The voices of the dead are both poignant and humorous and Saunders manages to create an epic adventure out of very little at all. One of the interesting things about this book is that Lincoln himself is central to the narrative, but barely a character compared to vivid personalities of the dead souls that step outside of their personal purgatories to help a child and father let go of each other when they can’t do it on their own.

Most Anticipated: February, 2017

All right, here they are. Here are the February releases I’m most looking forward to, along with the reasons for my excitement (drum roll):

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Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

Ugh, I am SO excited for this one. I love mythology and folklore, and Neil Gaiman is a favorite author, so this is like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of books for me. Gaiman takes the stories of Odin, Loki, Freya, etc and strings them together in a novelistic way, beginning with the genesis of the nine worlds and ending with Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods. In Gaiman’s voice, the gods become more godlike, and yet more human, making myth seem more like a real life story than a sketched out recitation of folklore.

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Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

This is one of the real buzz books of February, and I’m really excited to have been given a review copy of the book to check out. Look for that review later in the month. The premise extremely original and interesting. The “Lincoln” of the title is not just Abraham, but also his son, Willie. Willie is Abraham Lincoln’s son, who died as a child. The book takes place over the course of a long, dark night when Abraham comes to Willie’s crypt to spend time with him. Willie himself is in “the bardo” – a Tibetan concept that is a state of being in between death and rebirth. While Willie is stuck in a land of ghosts, trying to find the way to move on, Abraham is stuck in his own “bardo,” trying to move past his grief so he can do the tremendously important job he has been given: to govern the United States.

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My (Not So) Perfect Life – Sophie Kinsella

On the lighter side, there’s Sophie Kinsella’s latest book. about a modern girl with the perfect life – a glam job, an expensive London flat and a drool-worthy Instagram feed. Just kidding – only the Instagram feed is as described and that feed is all a fabricated lie. Katie lives in a closet-sized space and works a dull office job. And even that goes down the tubes when she’s sacked by her powerful boss. When that boss shows up at Katie’s new place of employment – a glamping site – Katie has the chance for … what? Redemption? Revenge? Or something else?

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The Refugees – Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese author, is back with a new novel after a stunning 2015 debut. This one is a collection of stories exploring questions of immigration, identity, love, and family. Each story involves a character that moves from one country to another. There’s a young Vietnamese refugee who has to deal with severe culture shock when he is sent to live with two gay men in San Francisco, or a Vietnamese girl whose half-sister has gotten to go to America and accomplished things that are out of reach for those who stayed behind. Each story delicately captures the dreams and hardship of immigration.

 

The Hygge and How to Get It

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Photo: Abby Kihano

If you’ve thoroughly worked through the KonMari method and have mastered the art of being tidy, tossed everything that doesn’t spark joy and got everything else folded neatly away, then you may be looking for the next step in the neverending quest for lifestyle bliss.

Well, may I introduce you to “hygge?” Hygge (pronounced¬†HOO-gah) is a Danish concept that roughly corresponds to the English word “cozy.” More elaborately, it’s finding joy in small pleasures and the beauty in simple, every day life. Examples of hygge might be wrapping yourself in your softest blanket with a mug of your favorite tea and a new magazine; or enjoying a great glass of wine and a long talk with an old friend

If the concept could be distilled down to its essence, the basics would be:

  1. Create a calm and relaxing atmosphere (candles are great for this)
  2. Be completely present, put away all sources of distraction (no phone/internet)
  3. Make yourself completely comfortable (blankets, fluffy socks and loose clothes)
  4. Indulge yourself – but mindfully (hygge-time is the time to eat that chocolate or cake you’ve been saving for a treat)
  5. Be in complete harmony with those who are sharing the moment (don’t try to compete or brag, no drama/political talk)

Sounds irresistible, right? If you’re interested in delving more into the Danish cozy way of life, here are some books that can help you achieve full “hygge” at home.

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The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell

This is not a self-help book! Helen Russell was a writer for Marie Claire until her husband took a job for Lego and they moved out to rural Denmark. This is the story of their first year there. The first part hilariously describes the awkward moments as she attempts to fit in to a completely opposite way of life and an unfamiliar language. There’s a chapter for each month, and each chapter focuses on an aspect of Danish society that contributes to the famed happiness of its people. If you want to really understand “hygge,” not just on a personal level, but on a larger, society-wide level, this book will do it.

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The Little Book of Hygge – Meik Wiking

Once you’ve explored Danish culture thoroughly, it’s time to buckle down and figure out how to get a little hygge for yourself. This book breaks it all down and offers advice for getting that sense of coziness and comfort into your own life, from choosing the right lighting to dressing for absolute comfort.

So, happy hygging! If you discover the ultimate hygge experience, be sure and let me know!

 

Best Books of 2016

Well, this is long overdue, but I figured that I have until the end of January to do my best of 2016 round up. So before it’s too late, here are my picks for the best book of 2016 in the genres I typically read.

Please note that these choices are out of the books I actually read, which is a tiny percentage of the books that were actually published.

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FICTION:

The Girls – Emma Cline: The Girls was an incredibly haunting book that stayed with me long after I finished. It was the first recommendation I would give to friends looking for a read, as it’s the perfect combo of addictive plot and deeply skilled writing. Come for the psuedo-Manson Family plot, stay for the subtle observation on the forces that lead women down dangerous paths.

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FANTASY/SCI-FI:

Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan Maguire: This book takes my childhood fantasy and brings it to life, supposing that there really are magical worlds, and if you’re the right kind of person, you’ll find the doorway into the one that’s waiting for you. Maguire’s worlds encompass all types, from the nonsensical to the creepy. But magical worlds are fickle and have a tendency to kick visitors right back where they came from, with little or no chance of return. Maybe you broke an obscure rule, or grew too old, or just got homesick and wanted a quick trip back. So picture a house full of children who want nothing more than to escape this world. How far would someone go to get back?

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MYSTERY/THRILLER:

Fellside – M.R. Carey: I can’t resist a mystery with a supernatural twist, and Carey’s is perfect. Our main character is Jess, a junkie who is convicted of murder when her apartment burns and suffocates the boy upstairs. Overcome with guilt, she wants to just lay down and die and everyone around her is happy to let her do just that. But then the ghost of her victim appears to her and tells her she wasn’t the killer. The mystery of who started the fire isn’t that hard to guess, but in the end it turns out not to be the real mystery at all. Carey keeps the reader so focused on Jess’ investigation, the real twist is a genuine surprise, but makes perfect sense once the pieces fall into place.

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HISTORICAL FICTION:

A Gentleman of Moscow – Amor Towles: Amor Towles writes gentle, witty stories that remind me of films of the 1930s. The characters remain clever, genteel and collected whatever their circumstances, and you get the feeling that if you have the right combination of confidence and wit, you can make any hovel your palace. This book takes place in Russia during the rise of Communism. Count Rostov is exiled for the crime of being a gentleman and must live out the rest of his days within the Hotel Metropol. Although the circumstances are tragic, Towles lightens his story with an abundance of comedy and charm, while still remaining true to the actual horrific events that were taking place outside the walls of the Metropol.

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Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

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Ever since childhood, I have been a mythology and folklore nut. Alongside Western fairy tales, I devoured Greek myths, African and Native American folklore, Japanese ghost stories and child-friendly versions of Indian, Celtic and Norse epics. Even as an adult, I love to stumble on fantasies based on the mythology of underrepresented cultures. Stories set in faux Medieval Europe are a dime a dozen, but the genre gets an instant refresher when you take it somewhere else.

Modern authors are finding that Russia lends itself very well to fantasy, with its deep, dark snowy winters and its primeval forests, as well as the menagerie of mythical creatures, from the homely domovoi that watch over the house to the wild demons of the forest that hunger for human flesh.

Katherine Arden is a scholar of Russian culture and history and she does a good job of creating a fictional Russia where the old spirits coexist with the new religion and politics rules the city while old traditions rule the far reaches. It’s the clash of modern politics and the old ways that sets the story in motion here. The strength of the book is the way that every detail of the characters’ lives rings true, from the daily life of a border lord’s family to the political wranglings of the city folk.

The story centers on Vasya, who has inherited a second sight and certain powers from her maternal bloodline. When Vasya’s father visits Moscow, the prince takes the opportunity to send a troublesome, half-mad Princess and a charismatic, ambitious priest back home with him to get them out of the way. They couldn’t come at a worse time — the two newcomers disrupt the old traditions and weaken the land’s spirits at a time when an old evil is close to escaping its prison. Vasya must draw on her abilities to protect her people, but at what cost?

This is a beautifully written, well-paced fantasy that lingers on the details, but not at the expense of the action. Arden manages to bring her tale to a solid conclusion, while leaving an opening for the story to continue and show us other settings in this alternate Russia.

New Year’s Resolutions for Book Lovers

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Yep, it’s that time of year, where everyone decides to start over. This year, they are going to eat healthy, exercise, watch less TV, walk more, etc. And it seems like every year, we fail to some extent. We don’t transform ourselves into perfect individuals who live perfect lives. And that’s fine. But I believe it’s still worthwhile to set good intentions at the beginning of the year, because you never know what will stick.

I know a lot of people make resolutions to read more, and I think that often people don’t succeed because “read more” is too vague. The key to kickstarting a good habit is to be specific and realistic with your goals. Here are a few suggestions for resolutions to improve your reading habits:

1. Challenge Yourself to Read a Specific Amount of Books: If you just want to read more, the best way to do this is a choose a specific amount to shoot for and keep track. A great way to do this is Goodreads Reading Challenge. You enter the amount of books you want to read for the year, and enter them on Goodreads as you read them. The site will keep track of how well you are keeping on pace and you’ll also get a badge when you finish to remind yourself of your accomplishment. Using this tool, I’ve gone from reading 20 books to 36 books in a year.

Choose a number that’s realistic for you. If you barely read at all, aim to read a book per month, or even one every two months. Also, if you’re brand new and trying to build a habit, start with books that are quick and easy for you to read. Once you get into the habit of reading, you can tackle more time-consuming books. If you read regularly, but don’t prioritize it, think about how much you typically read and try to bump it up slightly. Two books a month, if you currently read one, for example.

2. Join a Reading Challenge to Expand Your Horizons: Oftentimes we find ourselves stuck in a rut. We only read books that are easy and painless for us, sticking to preferred genres or bestsellers. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but a varied reading list can expand your knowledge and your empathy by getting you to read authors and subject matter you normally wouldn’t.

The internet has several fun reading challenges that give you a list of prompts, and you choose books that fit the prompts. The PopSugar Reading Challenge is a fantastic one, with a wide variety of prompts to choose from. If you’re an avid reader, you can try to get through all of them. If you won’t be able to read that much, you can pick and choose to create a list that works for you. Want something else? Girlxoxo.xom has a huge master list of reading challenges so you can find the perfect one.

3. See the Movie/Show? Read the Book: A great way to go from reading for pure pleasure, to really engaging critically with reading is to start with things that have already caught your interest. When you see a movie or TV show you like, find out whether it’s based on the book and then read the book. As you read, compare the book to its adaptation and think about the changes between the two, why they were made and what reaction you have to each version. You’ll find that actively thinking about the material will make it more memorable and also more enjoyable.

4. Join a Book Club: Reading can be a tough hobby for extroverts. It’s almost always done alone and involves a lot of introverted thinking and imagination. If you’re a more extroverted person, but want to incorporate reading into your life, look for a book club in your local area. Book clubs turn reading into a social experience, so even if you find it tough to sit down and plunge into a book for even an hour, the fact that you will get to talk about it with others later can serve as a powerful motivating force. It can also be a great way to make friends and another good start to thinking critically about books, as you compare your impressions with those of others and see how they match and differ.

5. Write About the Books You Read: If you already like to read, but want to deepen your engagement and thinking for a more intellectual experience, make a commitment to write about each book you read in a form that works for you. You can review on a public site, like Goodreads or Amazon, or keep a private book journal with your thoughts. Make it low pressure to start. Just a small blurb with your basic thoughts on the book. If you get inspired to write more, do it. Not only does this help you think more deeply about your reading, it also provides a fun memory later on.

I have a private blog where I have kept short notes on the books I read, and going back and looking them over rekindles forgotten memories. In some cases, I don’t even remember that I had read the book! Going back and reading my notes allows me to engage with it again and in some cases see where my thinking has changed over time. If you decide to reread a book, having your thoughts from the last time you read it can be an awesome time capsule and create some good critical thinking opportunities for your re-read.

5 Essential Cookbooks for Home Cooks

I have a love-hate relationship with cooking. I love eating good food, and the best way to get good food at home is to cook it yourself. But the activity of cooking is not necessarily something I enjoy. It’s worth the reward though – not only can I eat better when I cook from scratch, but I the sense of accomplishment is pretty rewarding as well, when you prepare something well.

The way I use cookbooks has changed a lot over the years. With the rise of the internet, you can find almost anything you want at the tip of your fingers and there really isn’t much need to have a lot of cookbooks cluttering up your kitchen. That said, it’s also pretty useful to have a few references at hand so you don’t have to do extensive research for every basic recipe or cooking task. So here are five cookbooks that contain enough knowledge to keep you cooking without having to look up every single thing on the internet.

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1. How to Cook Everything – Mark Bittman: For the beginner cook, this is an essential compendium. It has easy-to-follow instructions, tips and advice on how to cook simple meals with fresh ingredients. It also includes helpful articles that will step up your kitchen skills, such as how to use a knife, a list of ways to dress up a basic chicken breast, and easy reference charts. This book also has a the capability to grow with you. Start out with the easiest basics, and as you get more confident, tackle the next level stuff. If you only have one cookbook in your kitchen, this should be the one.

 

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2. Forgotten Skills of Cooking – Darina Allen: As it says on the cover, Darina Allen is “the Julia Child of Ireland” and for good reason. People migrate from around the world to her cooking school in Ireland to learn traditional methods of cooking that are trendy now, but never went of style on the Emerald Isle. The thing I love about this book is that many of the preparations within are very simple but they are informative not just about how to prepare, but with shopping advice and even a foraging guide for those who live in areas where this is possible. I use this book mainly as a guide and don’t really follow the recipes. I just study the information on certain meats, fish or vegetables before I prepare them to learn the best cooking methods. I love to cook very simple meals that show off the ingredients and don’t have a lot of sauces, or things mixed all together and this book is extremely helpful for that.

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3. Two Dudes, One Pan – Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo

This is an essential book for apartment dwellers with small kitchens and not a whole lot of space or money for cooking implements. The sections of the book are organized by cooking implement: skillet, Dutch oven, etc., and contain a variety of recipes you can make using that one piece of equipment alone. You can make all of the recipes in the book with only five pieces of equipment in your kitchen (big bowl, nonstick skillet, frying pan, dutch oven, roasting pan and baking dish). If you don’t have one or two, or even three of the above, you can still make the recipes using the other items. And the recipes are top notch. Jon and Vinny are masters of flavor and know how to make every ingredient taste good. This skill shows in the recipes, which are also easy to make.

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4. Sunday Suppers at Lucques – Suzanne Goin

This is a great book for the weekend warrior, someone who is too busy to cook during the week, but would love a home cooked meal on the weekend. This book is drawn from the tradition at Goin’s LA restaurant to do a simple four-course prix fixe meal every Sunday. The book contains sets of four course menus, arranged seasonally. The meals consist of elegant, classic dishes with easy-t0-follow recipes. Since the menus are seasonal, there is also a bunch of info on produce, including how to choose the best fruits and vegetables. Since it’s a whole meal, there are also instructions on what you can make ahead and in what order you should do everything. Wisely, Goin also anticipates things that might go wrong and how you can adjust to compensate. This is probably not a book for a beginner, but for someone who enjoys cooking and rarely finds the time, it’s perfect. You can make the meals a weekly ritual to indulge in your cooking hobby.

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5. Baking: From My Home to Yours – Dorie Greenspan

This is probably the essential American baking book. Dorie Greenspan is the acknowledged master of this field and this extensive book has recipes for everything from homey breads, muffins and brownies to dramatic cakes for special occasions. There’s also a large glossary filled with basic baking tips and advice that can be applied to any baking recipe.

 

 

Essential Reads: “Swing Time”

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Before you get sucked into all the new releases coming out in 2017, stop and add this don’t-miss read to your list, if you didn’t pick it up last year. Zadie Smith is one of the most talented American authors working today. Her stories are irresistible, her characters unforgettable, and her voice is one-of-a-kind.

If you haven’t read her yet, Smith is a must, and Swing Time is a fantastic place to start. It follows two mixed-race friends as they come of age. They become best friends in dance class, drawn together by their similar ethnicity. As they grow, their paths diverge, with one seeking out the spotlight and fame as a dancer, while the narrator haunts the shadows, working as an assistant to a celebrity.

This story of two friends manages to cover a lot of cultural ground, touching on race, class and cultural appropriation, as well as the power of celebrity in our current culture. But it’s her characters that will bring you through the story. They are so real, and so fascinating, they’ll keep you riveted on their stories from start to finish.

5 Books to Read in January

It’s a new year, and I’m sure many of us have resolutions about reading, whether it’s to read more books, expand your repertoire, or perhaps to get involved in a different way with your reading hobby. Whatever it may be, here are five books to get you started right away in 2017.

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Fiction: 4 3 2 1 – Paul Auster: From one of the most acclaimed contemporary authors comes a new novel already being hailed as his most vivid and heartbreaking work yet. Auster follows the life of Archibald Isaac Ferguson down four alternate paths. Critics are already marking this one down as an unforgettable start to a new year of reading.

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Nonfiction: A Really Good Day – Ayelet Waldman

Writer and radio personality Waldman, plagued by a mood disorder and craving one really good day, experiments with microdosing LSD. As she charts her experiences with the drug, she also explores the history and mythology of the famous psychedelic, as well as the legal policies that control it. It’s an eye-opening and often hilarious account of a fascinating subject.

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Mystery/Thriller: The Girl Before – JP Delaney

If you’ve already devoured The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, make it a girl-title psych thriller trilogy by picking up The Girl Before. It begins with a house for rent and a mysterious request on the rental application: “Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.” Emma is the first girl to apply, drawn to the strange house rules. They are intended to transform the occupant — and they do. Then comes Jane, who moves in next. As she tries to untangle the previous tenant’s story, she unwittingly follows the exact same path as the girl before.

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Fantasy: The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

If you loved Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, this new fantasy will spin an irresistible spell for you with its myth-rich story and gorgeous voice. Vasilisa lives with her family at the edge of the Russian wilderness, honoring the spirits of home, yard and forest that protect them from evil. When her mother dies, a new stepmother comes and puts an end to the old rituals. As the crops fail and misfortune haunts the village, Vasilisa is forced to choose between marriage and the convent. But Vasilisa has a different fate — she must draw on her hidden powers to save her family from a threat that rises anew¬† out of the oldest tales.

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Biography: My Life, My Love, My Legacy – Coretta Scott King

Experience the full story of Coretta Scott King (wife of MLK, Jr) for the first time. King was a feminist and activist in her own right, even before marrying Martin Luther King, Jr. After his death, she continued to lobby for social change, civil rights and AIDS awareness. Her story is a love story, a family saga and a memoir of a free-thinking black woman who became one of the brave leaders of 20th century equality movements, who was committed to nonviolent social change in the face of terrorism and violence.