Friday, April 20, 2018

Ada Twist, scientist...

Meet Ada Twist, a little black girl, with a lot of questions, although she did not start properly talking before the age of 3. Meet also her family, surprised by her interest in science and the art of questions, but with a relatively low level of tolerance when it comes to bizarre experiments, such as of making a cat stinky.
But even if grounded for a short while, Ada's mind cannot stop, and as a veritable scientist, she keeps asking questions and looking for answers. That's how science advances, after all...
Luckily, her parents realized that her curiosity and dedication to science is bigger than life, so they better keep up the pace with their gifted girl, instead of forcing her out of the scientific comfort zone. 
Ada Twist, Scientist, by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts is truly inspiring both for children - especially curious little black girls - and for their parents. To the children, it gives them another motivation to dare. For the parents, to be tolerant and instead of cutting short the wings of their children, to rather go to school and use the luck of having a gifted child for their own improvement too. I personally haven't found the illustrations outstanding, just a normal visual background for a well-told story. The messages are encouraging and simple, the easy motivation that most probably parents of gifted children took some long time to find otherwise. Or in some cases, too late, as many were impatient and unprepared enough to understand their gifted children so they discouraged their little girls to move forward with their dreams. The book can be also used for a class discussion, as teachers also need more than once to cope with the curiosities of some of their gifted pupils.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Short funny stories from a time that was

Once upon a time it was the first Internet address - mine was hotmail - and the chat rooms, and the MySpace and the Mozilla, and so many wanders hard to describe to someone that grew up with. Besides the technological novelty, the Internet brought a tremendous change in the realm of human relationships, creating that easiness of talking with strangers and in many cases, encouraging people to be themselves, at least while online. Although I have no therapist background at all, I am sure that for many, it helps a lot to create that strength of coming up in the real life too. 
In a this funny collection of short stories from the very first time of the Internet - which were not so old times at all, by the way, Jess Kimball Leslie is sharing her own experience of life, identity and love stories. The angle outlining how the birth of the Internet contributed to empower her identity and help her be in touch with people sharing the same interests adds relevance to her story itself. It shows the impact of the late decades of technological development on human behavior and the ways in which Internet and its communication tools helped create better stories. Obviously, there are so many downsides and dangers and unpleasant and even tragical occurences that took place under the anonymous cover of the Internet, but in the case of 'I Love my computer because my friends live in it', there is a positive vibe which make you think that there could be good Internet-related news too, and not only short-lived chat room romances.
This collection of stories by Jess Kimball Leslie is that kind of book that you can read easily but not without leaving you with some deep thoughts about how the Internet changed - with its good, bad and ugly - your life.  I loved the (self)ironic style and the authentic strong voice of the author. She is a good storyteller and would love to read more from her. 

Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Interview with Medeia Cohan, author of Hats of Faith

As a mother of a small child growing up in a complex world, teaching tolerance is part of my educational priorities. Besides the personal examples from the family, and interactions with people and children belonging to other religions, books and movies are a good tool for teaching the lessons of tolerance. But finding the right books with a straightforward message is not always easy. A couple of months ago, I've been offered the chance to read and review a quality book about head-coverings in different religions, Hats of Faith. As I enjoyed the book, I wanted to further explore the topic, through an interview with the author, Medeia Cohan. Here is the result of our exchange, shared via e-mail. The title and inter-titles are my selection. 
Photo from the personal archive of Medeia Cohan (left). 

'There simply isn't enough diversity in books'

How did you decide to write Hats of Faith?

I never really decided to write this book, it sorted of decided on me, rather than the other way around.
I really just wanted to buy it for my son, but it didn’t exist. Normally with something like this I would have thought, “Oh well” or “Too “bad” and moved on with my life, but I just kept thinking how important it was, at this moment in time that a book like this existed. In this time of increased intolerance and faith and race based hate crimes, the world really needs something secular and factual and mainstream; something that wasn’t preachy and is beautiful to give children an early familiarity with head coverings.
The more I spoke about the idea with other parents, the more I kept hearing stories of children reacting badly or making embarrassing gaffs when they’d encounter someone in a head covering, like my neighbour’s 2 year old daughter who called a women in a grey niqab a ghost. I also heard stories from those who covered their heads about never seeing themselves in mainstream books and the impact that had on them.
Stories like these fuelled my belief that there simply isn’t enough diversity in books and children aren’t getting important interfaith and diversity education early enough. It’s the lack of these things that lead to fear and ultimately negative views of the unknown.
Motivated by a drive to make a difference and encouraged by other parents, I decided it was my job to write this book. Before I knew it I was in talks with my now publisher and long time friend Hajera Memon to bring this book to life.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

A subject like this you are never going to make everyone happy but I wanted to do the best we possibly could to pull together generally agreed upon accurate information that we could stand proudly behind. This proved harder than I thought.
People are passionate and thus sensitive about their faiths. Getting the tone and information in this book right was a total challenge and we still occasionally get complaints. But on the whole I think people see the effort we’ve made and are supportive.
Writing this book was a huge and very time consuming responsibility and at times working with so many experts to get it right threatened to ruin the entire project. Something like this can only be done as a passion project as we’ll never financially cover the hours we spent researching and rewriting to get it just right without compromise.

The research took over a year...

I've read that the writing process took a long time, as the opinion of various religious experts was requested. How did this consultation process work?

The research for this book took just over a year and as I said, it was not an easy process. We made a commitment from the beginning to make sure that we were writing something as accurate as possible and to do that we need to consult with experts, faith leaders, curators and professors of theology from around the world. It was a grueling process where we’d write something based on loads of on and off line research and then send it out to experts from every faith and it would come back covered in red. And then we’d start again. It was truly painful, but in the end I’m proud of the work we did and the end result.

Projects for the betterment of future generations

What are your recommendations for anyone embarking on a journey writing about such a topic?

It’s so important that we realise these projects for the betterment of future generations, but this kind of thing will not make you money. You must do it because you believe in it and you need to see it reaslied, otherwise you’ll end up resenting how much time of your life it takes.

I’m proud of what we’ve achieved and overcome and I see the difference it’s making when we run workshops or parents or teachers post pictures on social media. I hope one day religious or race based persecution is a thing we read about and can’t imagine. And I don’t mind that it’s taken a huge part of the last few years of my life and eaten into my income because I love it and I believe in it.

What are your favorite multi-cultural sources of inspiration when it comes to children books?

At our house we read a lot of books on repeat. Some of the favs include:
The Colour of Us
Last stop on Market Street
Ganesh’s Sweet Tooth
The Journey
Hanukkah Oh Hannukkah

What are your next writing plans?

Oh god, I can't even think past this project at the moment. We've just finished our FREE Interfaith Education Kit and are embarking on our first UK wide workshop  tour. That is currently consuming every minute of my thoughts.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Review: Sophia of the Silicon Valley by Anna Yen

Meet Sophia, a 20-something young girl, no Ivy League graduate, comfortably living in the fancy home of her parents, trying to boost her career. Her pushy Taiwanese mother really hopes that along the way she will maybe find some nice career-oriented partner and she will give up her professional dreams for turning into a dedicated staying-at-home wife. But plans are not supposed to happen anyway, not in this story.
Sophia ends up working in top-notch company, ending up giving her time, life and health too for achieving business plans and communicating to strange CEOs, some of the many bizarre successful creatures of the Silicon Valley. References to Pixar or Tesla are pretty obvious, and the writer herself has her own bunch of experience in this field. 
And the story goes on, with Sophia building her own path, finding a nice doctor boyfriend and climbing to the top, one crazy experience at a time.
The story has many useful thoughts about relationships in the era of women with full succcessful careers, with good examples of how to deal at work with crazy difficult people, meditation on life and startups. The new working relationships and environment are definitely changing not only the economy, but are also a challenge from the point of view of the human resources and relations perspective. Through Sophia's interactions the reader not necessarily familiar with this - sometimes unhealthy - lifestyle can get a good glimpse of the Silicon Valley gold digging fever. 
With a very good intriguing start, the story goes on slow-paced, turning around Sophia and her fast-forward life. The character in itself is likeable, crazy as a bat sometimes, with a colourful way of answering to challenges and an interior life of her own too, but when it comes to complexity, I would expect more details and a different way of reflecting the challenging facts she is exposed too. More than once, I had the feeling that she is over-exposed to way too many things - friendship challenges, dramatic health issues, family craziness - and still she remains completely plain, going on with her life as it is no tomorrow. I would expect Sophia to be as complex as her circumstances were.
Otherwise, Sophia of the Silicon Valley is a pleasant weekend or holidays read, either or not you are part of this corporate world. Sometimes it is good to know well in advance if your envy for a certain kind of glamour is reasonable or not.

Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Monday, April 2, 2018

On Motherhood in the Current Era: The Baby Plan, by Kate Rorisk

Three women of different ages, middle-class, faced with the challenges of pregnancy and all what it involves, from the baby shower to the obsessive planning of every single details of the delivery - or not. It could be you, it could be me, it could be any of us. Thinking pregnancy and therefore motherhood changed not only from the point of view of the medical facilities offered, but also from the way in which women approach it. Mostly, working women, with a career unfolding or in the making, with or without a stable partner. 
Nathalie, Lyndi and Sophia: three women with three different destinies, two of them half-sisters, with destinies inter-wined. In a very lively, page turning way, Kate Rorick creates situations and tell stories which besides the easy-going chick-lit side, make you think a bit more about what exactly you need to keep in - and out - of your mind when it comes to waiting for a baby. Sometimes, we just expect everything to be pastel clear and go as smoothly as an app, when in fact, reality may have its own rules and by far more interesting human challenges. 
Overall, it is an easy read but that makes you think and while enjoying the reading, keep you connected to a bigger picture about our way too entertaining life styles. I really loved the diversity of characters: from the middle class, slightly OCD teacher Nathalie, to the ambitious Maisey, or the sensitive step-mother Kate. Women characters are the most defined and most of them a good example of strong, independent women courageous to face their daily surprises of more or less planned pregnancies. 
Obviously, there is a lot more in the book than pregnancies and although slow-paced, there are a lot of action-catching events taking place. 
Recommended as a weekend/holidays/long trip lecture for quality readers looking for a relaxing yet insightful read.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Back on the Family Memory Lane: Algeria is beautiful like America

'Where you don't know where you're going, take a look at where you come from', goes an Arab saying. Young Olivia is going back in the country of her ancestors, looking to re-create personal histories and memories, mostly left to her through her grand-mother's stories. 
Former 'pied-noir'/'black foot', name given to Jews and Christians who at the beginning of the 20th century 'colonised' Algeria and other North-African countries from France, Olivia's family left the country in the 1960s with a piece of the country in their soul. They left there the best memories and a life lost for ever. Memory is treacherous, adding layers and layers of nostalgia the reality that was maybe completely different. Olivia is inspired by those filtered memories and her journey is both a self-search of her family roots and a travel dairy in a country still wearing the stigma of the bloody civil war in the 1960s.
Telling the story as a graphic novel was a very inspiring way as it offers a proper visual content, but also creates different memoir dynamics, with its own red line of events and encounters, that maybe if told in a classical way would have been less entertaining and interesting. Qualifying this genre as less-literary ignores from non-literary snobbish reasons the rich values that the match between inspiring words and inspiring drawings can bring. 
Algeria is Beautiful Like America is a good example in this respect. Especially when you have to deal with historically delicate topics, graphic novels may bring a pinch of irony into the story, which can deter the otherwise dangerous time bombs of political and ideological discourses. 

Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

I See You. Observations from the ICU. A Caregiver's Journey, by Monica Bhide

It happened to me often - the last time just a couple of weeks ago - to be faced with the unexpected turns of fate, when someone close to me just in a matter of minutes is challenged by a terrible, life threatening illness. The sickness and incapacity took control in just a couple of minutes of the mind and body. You don't know what will happen next and if after you say 'good bye' today there will be a tomorrow of you two.  
The newest book by Monica Bhide, a very talented author that I often feature on my blog, is about the very experience of seeing someone dear falling deep into the painful seas of physical uncertainties. I See You. Observations from the ICU. A Caregiver's Journey is not aimed at raising fundamental questions about life and death and the life after, but about the day by day challenge of surviving alongside with someone close going through a very complicated health-related episode. 
While her husband is in coma, she is observing the new environment, with the curiosity of the writer, while trying to get used with the dramatic reality. In such situations, only your curiosity can actually save you from deep sadness and the overwhelming feeling of being just a puppet of destiny. For good and for worse, things can change and you are just a witness of all those chain of events. What you can do, in fact, as a writer and creator of words-made worlds, is to gather those experiences, filter through your personal art and offer inspiration to those suddenly found themselves in a similar situaiton. It is a noble task to offer spiritual help without promising ultimate explanations. It is this sequence of life through the eyes of a caregiver that in fact never considered being a caregiver. Observations from the ICU, a place where you never wanted to find yourself in the first place.    
Life doesn't come with an user guide anyway so we are left with its incertitudes and unexpected shocks and drama. Books like the one authored by Monica Bhide is a practical guidance to go on with that. 

Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the author in exchange for an honest review

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Poetry Hour: Bloom by Beau Taplin

I promised myself to read more poetry this year, and as for now, my reading plans are advancing smoothly, but also want to discover authors from other countries than France, US, UK or Germany. With Bloom, by Beau Taplin I checked instantly two boxes on my agenda. 
A famous Australian author and a literary sensation worldwide that I personally just discovered, he creates poetry stories about life and loss, questioning without requesting an answer or a solution. The words are flowing quietly, like a calm river making its way through a lonely forest.
It is the simplicity of every single gesture that matters and the writer's eye and art to put the words together to re-create a new world. 

Like in this stanza:

The best therapy 

There's no therapy or medicine
like sitting alone in a secluded space
with someone you feel at home and comfortable with
A little music for atmosphere and some quality conversation, and all of your wounds and sorrows heal themselves.

This is another example of writing that I enjoyed reading:

Fools together

I know we needed some time apart
Some time to reevaluate what we were
looking for. And if someday we find
our way back to each other, I know
we'll be better for it
Still, I miss you. And most of the 
time I think it would be better to be 
fools together, than sensible without you.

And there are many more examples that maybe you, my reader, you can discover by yourself reading this book.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Cozy Mystery Thriller: Hummus and Homicide, by Tina Kashian

A cozy mystery with a lot of tasty references to the greatly unknown Armenian cuisine, Hummus and Homicide by Tina Kashian keeps you interested despite the slow pace. The story is populated with characters with strong personalities and promises a series which local American countryside flavor and ethnic cuisine mysteries.
When the most antipathic character is found dead in the parking place, you may not feel any regrets and remorse for feeling so, but her death may put under question the future of the Kebab Kitchen, an Armenian restaurant. 'A murder in Ocean Crest is big news', especially when it happens for the first time in at least 40 years. From now on, nothing is as simple as the uneventful life of the Ocean Creast residents. It happens that the death of the freshly sanitary inspector Heather Bank occurs after she ate at the hummus bar from the Kebab Kitchen, being served by Lucy Berberian, the daughter of the Armenian couple running the restaurant, recently back for a sabbatical after years of hard work but no right reward as a patent lawyer. The fact that Heather and Lucy did have old disputes from the school years, and only a couple of days ago their disagreements reignited in a public space, which means everyone around may know about it, places Lucy in the first line of suspects. 
Lucy doesn't give up and without waiting as the good citizen the results of the police investigations, she starts her own research leading to the spectacular discovery of the real murder, who before being delivered to the police, is stopped from comitting a new victim by being hit between his eyes with a jar of tahini. As foodie as that!
Although the pace of the investigation is relatively slow, the details leading to the final revelation are parcimoniously yet spectacularly outlined. There are plenty of characters in the book, enough well defined to be loved or hated by the reader. As for the tasty mouth-watering descriptions, it just makes me run to check the first Armenian restaurant. Anyway, I didn't know that hummus, for instance, is part of this cuisine. 
Overall, a pleasant read for a relaxed weekend. I am personally looking forward to the next installment in the series, as I am already curious about what will happen with some of the characters I've got acquainted with. 

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A Fantastic Thriller: In the Blood, by Lisa Unger

I've rarely read a thriller which over 300 pages keeps revealing essential details without becoming repetitive, stereotypical and at the end of the story, plain boring. In the Blood, by Lisa Unger is made of small little pieces which will match the great picture only at the very end of the day. 
A girl with a bloody hunted past built a new identity made of lies and half-truth, but in the era of the Internet nothing can be a perfect secret or cover anymore. Exploring various psychological layers and big topics - such as various Jungian approaches to psyche - but also some genetical questioning, In the Blood has a simple story which is simply written, with a special focus on the details hidden by the main characters and the subtle psychological game of manipulations and temptations. As the story unfolds, nothing stays the same, including the gender of some of the characters and although the general pace is slow, you don't feel like anyhting happens, rather the opposite. 
The background discussion of the genetics of crime and psychopatological behavior is very interesting but not necessarily conclusive. Is the tendency towards violent crimes part of our genetical heritage? Can we counter the dark evils, or in fact, although therapy and special psychological measures, things stay in fact the same and we cannot escape the deviant pattern?
Those directions and the intense characters this book is populated with, made it into a very entertaining - the bad bloody kind of entertainment - reading. I am personally very curious to discover more writings by this author, as the ideas explored and the characters will stay with me for a long time.

Rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

International Blog Tour: The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk

'Then we just set there, silent and lonely for you together, because hellos are nice and neat and so much easier than goodbyes'.
The debut novel by Ashley Woodfolk, The Beauty that Remains published by Delacorte Press is a poetic story written and told for the teenagers facing nowadays death more openly and frequently that it used to happen not as far as ten years ago. Shared through social media, death, including in its violent form, is more obtrusive and visually common nowadays, but the pain and mystery surrounding death remains. Regardless the age, we still cope with understanding death, and when young people at the beginning of their lives are taken away, often violently, the words are silent. We are trying to replace their absence through memories, Instagram pictures or emotions. And there is also music, as a way in which the protagonists of the stories of love and life after loss in the book are trying to fill up the void of the friends who are no more. More than words that are lying - 'Lying is the new language we speak. It's the only way we can talk at all' - , music is a way to continue telling the story, in the best, strongly emotional way. Each and every particular story shared is full of emotions and impressive in its simplicity, while connecting the dots of the hardships of advancing through adulthood. 
The perspective shared are belonging completely of teenagers as the aimed audience is made of them. Maybe as adults we may find a lot of the stories and the pace unattractive, but once we keep in mind the aimed audience, we will realize that in fact it makes a lot of sense to just put on the side the over-critical perspective given probably also by the life experince and focus on the emotional challenges of the young adults coping with the loss of someone they love, the same age as them, not necessarily family. The feeling of breaking up while challanged by the lack of answers because life is still too young to offer the necessary emotional and intellectual support to create our own support stories. If we keep in mind that reference, we will clearly appreciate the fine and elegant writing of Ashley Woodfolk, which makes the book a great addition to a reading list for teenagers, because it calibrates the voice and the messages to young people looking for way too many answers to painful questions. 
Woodfolk succeeded to be well connected to the realities, without neglecting the quality of the writing and with the promise of creating even more such beautiful books. The Beauty that Remains (ISBN 9780525578284) is that kind of book that will for sure keep your young adult a little bit away from social media or that will at least prompt them to create a meaningul Instagram post. 

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review #sponsored #prhinternational #ad

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Book tour: Brooklyn in Love by Amy Thomas

I've read Paris My Sweet with a pen and notebook on the side, taking careful notes about the most delicious places to try in my top favorite city. Many notes are still there, waiting for me to start checking thiose places, one by one.
Meanwhile, the author returned to NYC and Brooklyn in Love is the account of her searching for a home at home, while looking for love and discovering parenthood. Altough the return is not easy, because expat experiences are changing and challenging, food and sometimes good drinks are the best ingredients to create the sense of belonging, involving the author and inspiring for settling down. 
'Coming home after two intensely profound and fulfilling years in the most beautiful city in the world was harden than moving abroad to a city where I knew no one. There was no distraction of a foreign culture, no challenge of learning a new language or meeting new people, and no promise of what might be. There was no French romance. I was back in familiar territory, among people, places and things I knew and had always loved...and yet everything had changed - most of all me'. But life is going to settle slowly, and the story goes in the most natural and simple ways: setting up a profile on an online dating network, getting settled with the new job, finishing writing Paris My Sweet, dating, exploring NYC through its iconic eating destinations and food fixations of the season. Exploring the freedom while struggling to keep up a relationship, but jumping to projecting a possible parenthood story with the 40s just around the clock. 
There is no drama or suspense when it somes to the everyday life story, but what makes the big difference is the food, and its histories, the stories behind the success of a location or a delicious dish. The writing flows, inspires and makes you hungry. Hungry for the Brooklyn that I personally love and miss a whole lot. But it makes me miss also the plates I haven't had yet. From the entire memoir, the food part is what I loved the most because it is inspiring, charming and always interesting. Either you are a travel or a food writer, you will find a lot of good samples of writing in this book. 
Maybe the rest of the book doesn't sound so exciting and fascinating - after all, we all have a life to live - but it is inspiring in its simplicity and genuine soul searching.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Monday, February 19, 2018

Poetry Hour: Blog Tour Purple Kisses by Priya Prithviraj

In my last post published in 2017, I promised myself that I will read in the next 12 months more poetry. For the last year, my only book of poems I've read was by my dear friend Monica Bhide Telltales, whose lecture encouraged me to try more encounters with this literary genre I neglected so much lately.
After a poetry-less January, my chance for a qualitative change in February occured from the talented Priya Prithviraj, who shared recently on my blog her thoughts on the writing process. After a Young Adult novel, she published a short book of poetry, that I had the chance to read these days. 
What is really special about this book is that it happily combines the poetry of the written word with the delicacy of the collage images, created by Niveditha Warrier. The beautiful images composed through words are kept alive and transformed through the language of images. The words are like touches of the brush on a canva, releasing feelings meeting vivid colours and creating worlds whose shapes are struggling to find their place on the canvas of the book page. Haiku-like, each page opens a door that encourages dreaming and emotions, telling stories of love and hope. The poetic stories are not complicated but complex and able to offer a different window into the worlds of ideas and emotions. Priya found a very genuine and original way to tell stories and hopefully she will continue to explore this universe by creating more poetic stories, encouraging the mind to fly far away, although for a short while, in a world of purple kisses and a life of colours.

Disclaimer: Book offered by the author in exchange for an honest review  

Interview with Romanian First Time Author Anca Niculae

Anca Niculae, a first time writer from Romania, got in touch with me via my reviewer profile, asking me if I am interested to read and review her book: Emilia's Treasure: How a Mermaid Makes Friends. I've accepted and since then, we kept writing short notes once in a while. I decided to ask her a couple of questions, part of my interview series with authors from all over the world. Here is the interview witnessing her challenges and passion of being a writer.

What was the biggest challenge of starting writing?
I started writing because I saw I can really help kids with my stories. You see, I became a mother for the first time in 2011, blessed with a little girl, and in 2013 with a baby boy.
If you are a parent just like me, especially if you have 2 kids you understand that giving attention to both, at the same time, can be really challenging. So, while I was busy helping my little boy learned to walk, my girl was learning to make friends. I witness so many times while she was getting rejected by other kids, so I felt I had to do something. I’ve tried to help her, but initially, my words seemed too vague for her. Just telling her where she went wrong or what she should do seemed pointless because it only made her even more insecure.  It was her that pointed me to the solution – as she loved to pretend she was a mermaid we started to make up stories about a mermaid called Emilia. It is amazing the power stories and games can have on kids! I was thrilled to see how attentive my daughter was, living the adventures of Emilia, asking questions, and laughing while she was playing the board game we designed. It was her favorite thing to do in our “special time”.
I was delighted to see her wanting to become like the little mermaid, learning to listen with empathy and control her impulses because the story spoke about what she enjoyed the most and the game was giving her real-life examples she could identify with.
I decided to make our story into a book, and give the board game in form of a downloadable pdf, so that other kids could enjoy it too, at a minimum cost for parents. This is where I’ve had my first big challenge, as this was my first picture book. You see, reading and playing with my own kids was one thing, as I always was a playful parent, but turning it all into a picture book, was another. Overcoming my own limiting believes, learning to come out of my comfort zone and show my work to others was by far the hardest thing I’ve had to do. There were many other challenges as well, and after I’ve had a hard time with the first illustrator I found, I was lucky enough to meet an artist, mother of 3 kids, who really loved working at this project. With her help, I was able to send the game to 37 mothers to test it. I was very nervous while I was waiting for the answers, but after a few weeks, feedback started to come in. Mothers of girls and boys from 4 to 10 years old loved the game and told me how much the kids enjoyed it! The happiest moment for me was when a Romanian editor expressed interest in publishing the book and the board game in the traditional form. It was more than a first-time author can ever hope for!
I believe that any parent can help their kid increase their emotional intelligence, teaching them about empathy and kindness, by reading them this story and playing the game.

What do you recommend to anyone considering a writing career?

To anyone interested in starting a writing career I would tell the same thing I tell to myself, and to my kids – to overcome self-doubt, because if you have a message, and you believe in what you do, nothing can really stop you from making your dreams come true. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, either way, you are right”.
There will always be setbacks, there will always be mistakes, but if you keep trying, and believe in your message, you will pull throw.
I am still at the beginning, and I am sure I can do more, I can do better, I can help more people. I think the need to write comes from within, and it never goes away. I do not believe in talent or inspiration. Your talent is your hard work and your inspiration is the message you feel you need to give.
As long as you have your message in mind, then, make lots of mistakes. Every one of them will be a step forward.
I think every new writer needs to think about what he/she wants to give to the audience and how they want to inspire people, to help them and to make them try to reach out for their dreams.  The more people you help, the more you will feel you made a difference in the world. We all have a dream, but most of us are really scared to go for it. But nothing is ever perfect, and very few things worth doing are easy, but the most important thing is to do your best every time, to make lots of mistakes – as they help you learn – and do better next time. In the end, the only thing truly sad is giving up on your dream before even trying to make it real –because this would mean giving up on YOU.

How do you find inspiration?

As I’ve learned long time ago - stories and games are the best tools to get kids to truly listen. This is why I keep a diary of things they love, want to know more about, or what they need more practice with and other things that are funny or just silly to them – because fun relaxes the brain and this way they learn easier. I think my mission as a parent is to be a coach to my kids - not to be with them in every fight they have in life or save them from hard times - but to help them develop the resilience, the will to fight, and the self-believe that they can overcome anything.  And this is what I try to write about – this is my inspiration.
As every other parent, I do my best to raise my kids to be confident, resilient and kind. I want them to try new things, and the games we play, the ideas they have, are an endless source of inspiration.
I think the most important thing I can give them is a set of values that would make them believe in themselves, fight for their dreams, be happy and live a good mark in the world.
What are your favorite writers?

I read books in very different genres, from parenting and self-help books to fiction written by Frank Herbert, Paulo Coelho, Richard Bach, or picture books of Giles Andreae and Ashley Spires.
I have a deep love of kids – they are little universes - and I am fascinated by the way the human mind works and how they translate the world throw creative play.
I believe in gentle playful parenting, in encouraging kids to express their emotions, and I loved books like “Playful Parenting” (by Dr. Lawrence Cohen) and “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting” (by Dr. Laura Markham) but the one that resonated with me the most was the work of famous philologist and researcher Carol Dweck about developing a growth mindset as defined it in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”.
What are your writing plans for 2018?

I have many projects in my mind for this year, but the most important is a series of game-books aimed to help kids learn to set goals, increase self-confidence and develop a growth mindset. I believe that we cannot rely only on school to teach our kids important life skills but us - as parents have the biggest impact in our children’s lives and can coach them to live fulfilled and happy. These books will have real-life stories, lots of fun and games and interesting activities that will speak about expressing and understanding feelings, building grit, but also mindfulness, dealing with setbacks, learning to follow your dream and much more.
I will, of course, continue the series of mermaid books about friendship with even more exciting adventures and funny moments to help kids relax and parents build connection.
They will all be united under the brand “Empower Kids! Books and Games” to help kids develop their emotional intelligence, teach them to be kind, understand the impact they have on the world they live in, raise their resilience and help parents build special connection moments with the little ones.
Photo: The personal archive of Anca Niculae

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Disappointment: The French Girl, by Lexie Elliott

If I will ever make a top of the worst books I've read, The French Girl will definitely be one of the first to mention. I hardly finished it, only because I really wanted to be sure that it is not only a first impression. Many many pages into the book, after being pretty tolerant with the slow pace and the abundance of references to the business management of a recruitment company, and also a lot of casual booze, I realized that in fact nothing will ever happen. The whole book is like a broken jump into nowhere, with a good promising writing, and interesting connections between the characters, thrown here and there, but that do not end up being put up together into a coherent story. And we are back to the business worries and insecurities of Kate, the storyteller, and more and more booze.
Beautiful Severine, the neighbour next door, was killed after the last day of vacation in France of a group of six universities students from Oxford. She was for a long time considered disappeared, but her body was just discovered in the well on the property of the vacation house. A charming French police inspector is investigating the case, while he is falling in love with one of the girls from the group, a potential suspect, and even let her see the stage of the investigation, where her best friend, Kate was considered a suspect. And the chain of errors continues, with a murder attempt against the same Kate by another member of the group, possibly a suspect, but for 'political reasons' the case was closed anyway.
The entire story bored me to tears. I've survived this book to write my review.

Rating: 2 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

3 Very Special Children Books Recommendations

I review very often children books on my blog or on Goodreads and, and read even more, but very often I am disappointed by the mismatch between words and images. Very often it happens to really like the wording content, but to realize that the visual representation is so clumsy, looking like made through a very basic illustrations program which, in my opinion, greatly damages the very essence of a children book. Especially in the cases when the books are aimed to a non-reading audience, it really diminishes the impact and relevance of the writing approach.
In the last weeks, I've had the chance to read some very special books, which are reflecting exactly my approach to children books: beautiful, creative illustrations complimenting an insightful text. I am happy to share with my readers my latest findings.

I've found the combination between comics-like drawings and colouful illustrations very inspired for this very cute story farm story. It carries the reader on a short journey where the big and small animals at the farm are not only doing their daily jobs, but where also friendship are created and parties thrown. It is the kind of story you end up reading to your kid over and over again, because you, as an adult, you also love this book so so much. A simple message of friendship beautifully illustrated.

The little Herodotus is a wise hedgehog, trying to find by himself what this big thing called life is all about. He has an eye for observing the world while at the same time he is trying hard to find his own answers to big life wonders. The pastel like illustrations are an invitation to dream and wandering through the major life questions. A good read for children from 5 years up.

The story, although it has a coming to age, optimistic happy end, it brings you to tears. The little rabbit embarks on an independent path, creating his own, free story, which means also leaving behind the one to whom he promised to never leave. Starting to live your life means also breaking up old promises and pushing beyond your limits and it is what rabbit is doing, being joined by other adventurous souls during his journey. The vivid colours of the illustrations, pastels with a brush stroke that reminds me of Chagall, are the perfect reflection of the search for meaning into the rabbit's life. A story that would love to read to my child before he is becoming a teen.

All books were rated with 5 stars
Disclaimer: Books offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Learning the Language of Tolerance: Hats of Faith

Faith comes in different shapes, manifestations and hats too. In a very well-targeted and smartly written book, Medeia Cohan makes an admirable overview of the main ways in which faith can be read by only looking at the headwear. Especially when you are living in a multicultural, multi-faith world and society, it is useful to learn to distinguish between different external manifestations of faith not in order to build walls and inspire fears, but for a mutual understanding.
'Learning about each other makes it easy to be more understanding. Being understanding helps us spread love and peace'. Of course in the everyday life it is not very easy to follow this motto, but a good basis can be laid down through a positive behavior and learning. 
The book was elaborated following consultation and direct advice from people from many different faiths, and I am sure it was quite difficult to find out only one and only manifestation of faith to be put into the story. For instance, I will rather say that many Orthodox Jewish women wear nowadays a sheitel - wig, instead of tichel as said in the book -, but the tichel is the exterior way easily recognizable of a headwear among Jewish women, especially from someone from outside the community. 
Diplomatically, the wording choice after indicating a specific head covering is 'which many - fill it with the representative of the faith - wear', that greatly solves dilemma and controversial intepretations. 
Hats of Faith is a really useful book, recommended especially for schools in multi-ethnic and multi-faith communities, but in fact that could be read to every child, regardless if part of a mixed background or not. We are all living in a diverse world, and we better try to understand it before swimming deep into the sea of stereotypes and misunderstandings.

Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Mystery of Feelings: Ms. Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami

There is a special way in which most of the Japanese literature deals with feelings. Or how actually it rather avoids to express them in our usual, Western way of doing it: loudly, aggressively, showing off and through direct interaction with the object of desire or hate. In the case of all the Japanese authors I've read until now, both from the old and new generation, feelings are guesses, described, hidden as much as possible. You may dance out or cut your hair suddenly, but you will not talk about your feelings straight. You may decide to end up your poor life, but you don't keep talking and talking about it over and over again. You just do it.
Ms. Ice Sandwich by the young Japanese author Mieko Kawakami is a novella of a young boy falling in love with a strange looking lady selling sandwiches. His love is consumed by going there to see her every day, describing her to his grandmother who is in coma and also drawing her. If not an incident takes place in the middle of the story when other people are describing her - a quiet person, no smiles or no external manifestation of any kind - you might think that this lady with her blue eyelids doesn't exist at all. It seems she went through some plastic surgery which makes her look weird and possibly unmarrigeable. Or this is how his colleagues are describing her. But the young boy, the storyteller couldn't believe it, but he decides instead to give up the visits to the supermarkets where she sells. Meanwhile, he makes a portrait of her, as he sees her, with qualities attributed by his imagination too, with fresh memories of fairy tales. He is still not a young man, but not a child either, swimming without direction through the river border between the two worlds. When he finally addresses her the word, is before she is leaving for good, as she is about to get married. He gaves her his portrait. That's all.
The two main characters, the boy and the Ms. Ice Sandwich, do not have names. They are just characters. In Japan, there is the tradition of changing the name once someone is going through a different life stage. Both the boy and the Ms. are about to enter a new stage of their life. They are still wearing their old clothes of their previous lifestage, while embarking on new beginning.
The story is moving on slowly, smoothly and tender. No sentimentality or drama, just days after days going on. Until the story ends.
For me, it was a happy come back to the world of Japanese writings, that I will visit hopefully more often in the next weeks. 

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Immigration Stories for Young Readers: Americanized by Sara Saedi

'The eighties weren't the most ideal time to be a Persian in America. With the hostage crisis still fresh in the country's minds, we were public enemies number one. The news footage of Iranians protesting in the streets, burning the American flag and screaming 'DEATH TO AMERICA', didn't really do much to bolster our image. And then came the Iran-Contra scandal, which was the vanilla ice cream on the poop pie. But my parents tried to teach us to ignore any negative perceptions of our homeland. We know the media didn't define our culture. What the news didn't sow was that we were a passionate people who loved art and music and poetry. A people who came up with any excuse to throw a party and danced with their hips and shoulders in full swing. And who, above all, put family before any thing'.
Americanized. Rebel Without a Green Card by Sara Saedi is a humorous, hilarious and honest memoir about life as illegal immigrants in the 1980s-1990s. Through stories that usually have a colourful language, she is sharing normal life story of any teenage - in America or elsewhere - except that her life was for a long while shadowed by the danger of being deported any time. Which didn't stop her from fully living the American dream, with all its dangerous excesses. 
Although she left Iran at a very early age, the language, culture and history remained an important benchmark defining her identity, as in the case of many Persian expats in America. Her view on Iran and the sentimental relationship to the country is part of an identity which resists the test of political allegiances and stereotypes. 
The ironic testimonies are in fact the best way in which serious struggles that almost all immigrant parents and their children cope with and therefore the book is an useful read to both children with an immigrant background and those in the country for over a generation. It helps to increase the tolerance and understanding of the everyday difficulties. 'Immigrant kids often feel like their parents will never understand what it's like to be a teenager in the States. They'll never fully comprehend what it's like to bounce back and forth between two worlds and two cultures without offending either side'.
Maybe the language will make it a bit difficult and non-recommended for a middle grader, but high-school kids are definitely a good audience for the book. 

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Three Children Book in the German Language I've Enjoyed this Week

I've promised myself at the end of 2017 to push myself to read and write more in German, because regardless how advanced you consider yourself with your German skills, it will never ever be enough to be considered a fluent human being. As children books are for me my best way to grasp a language, I've had this Tuesday an intensive hour while I sit on a Flatboy, with the baby near me, and kept reading and reading some children books. Not all of them where originally written in German - actually only one out of the three I am about to recommend - but I liked the translations and enjoyed the rich vocabulary. The best challenge was for me to translate most of them to the baby into English, which was, as I expected, a great brain exercise I passed successfully. 

Besides the gorgeous illustrations, very illustrative and aesthetic, is the text which was very attractive, explaining in simple words animal behavior and details about the animal life in general. The images and the text compliments each other perfectly helping the little reader to understand and learn so much about a variety of animals, of the sort that you rather encounter in real life, outside zoos.

Recommended to relatively bigger children, that are already taking art classes at school, the book has a succession of images where famous paintings do replace the human element with a monkey. You can use it either as a test of the general knowledge of the history of art, or as an exercise of flexibility. After all, everything is relative and you can always re-write/re-paint classical works using your imagination.

Fitzek can be considered the German Stephen King, but after reading some of his hair-raising psychological thrillers, you realize that he is going even further as he is magnifying fears and psychological depths creating novels that you can hardly forget. (Note to self, read more Fitzek this year, because his German is also challenging.) Pupsi&Stinki is a children book he wrote, where the suspense is in the air, but it ends up well, with a lesson about difference and acceptance. With a note of horror, in the low-level children register, as Pupsi is a child who poops non-stop therefore his bad reputation among his kindergarten peers. The story is a bit too long, but it is really enough to create a special ambiance of horror and fear created by the marginalization and bullying. The book is available in audio-format, but my copy was a physical book. 

Interview with Frances M. Thompson: 'Writing Makes me Happy'

I've got in touch with Frances M. Thompson via social media a couple of years ago, part of my travel blogging activities, and we continued the dialogue when I started to read and review her books, besides the usual photos and travel stories I've been sharing at the time. In addition to her writing projects, she created recently also WriteNOW cards which I personally love as it keeps me - and probably many people in my situation - focused and alert, through encouraging quotes of positive thinking about the many facets of the writing process. As usually when I encounter interesting people, I ask them a couple of questions about their writing life and experiences, and Frances took some time from her very busy mom, writer and entrepreneur life to answer my curiosities in an interview from my readers. Enjoy!

How did your writing adventure start? 

As soon as I learnt how to write, I remember really enjoying it and I wanted to write stories because I'd long loved books and hearing my parents telling me stories. I have old "books" I wrote and illustrated (terribly) from my early and some even printed out on paper from my teenage years, however, I can't honestly say I didn't take my writing seriously - or indeed finish anything longer than ten pages - until I was 28 and travelling the world with my partner. I'd left behind a full-time job and even busier social life in London and I suddenly had lots of extra hours in the day so the "I don't have time" excuse just didn't stand up anymore. I had also been blogging for a few years at that stage and really enjoyed writing regularly, building a platform and connecting with other people online. Writing fiction and getting some of the millions of ideas I had on paper was a natural progression... once I'd given myself a kick up the backside to get started!

What inspires you to write every day?

After five or six years of writing regularly (almost every day) I feel weird when I don't write. I think that's for two reasons. Firstly, I just really, really, really enjoying the process of writing from how it feels exercising my creativity, to sometimes entering a state of "flow", to holding a book I've written in my hands after years of work, so that's motivation enough to keep writing regularly. I also know that writing is good for my mind and soul and as someone who has had mental health ups and downs I know writing is therapy for me. Secondly, after spending time committing to writing regularly, it has become an ingrained part of my life. While the when, how often and what has changed (especially since becoming a mother), writing regularly is non-negotiable for me. It's like cleaning my teeth - I have to do it, I nearly always remember to do it and I feel weird when I don't do it or forget.

What are your 3 pieces of wisdom for an aspiring writer?

Aside from the most obvious - READ, JUST START, WRITE LIKE NOBODY'S READING - I would give the following pieces of advice: 

1. Make sure you enjoy writing. This sounds silly but don't write because you want to hold your book in your hand, write because you want to write a book. In other words, make sure you enjoy the journey more than the destination - and if you start and find that you don't enjoy the journey, that's fine! There are lots of other creative pursuits to explore and enjoy. I've learned after publishing several books now that you can't control what happens to a finished project, but you do have more control over the experience of writing it and this is also a lot more time-consuming. It's okay to struggle with writing - it's really flipping hard sometimes! - but it's not okay to hate the whole process and chase an outcome that may not be everything you wished for anyway.
2. If you do enjoy writing, then remind yourself of this all the time, and be gracious and kind to yourself in pursuing this joy. Try writing in different genres, let yourself have good days and bad days, and take breaks when you need to.
3. Make time. Time is your greatest asset as a writer and you need a hell of a lot of it. The only way I've been able to finish books is by saying No to other things, by prioritising writing over other activities and events, and by actively committing to writing regularly.

What are your favorite genres as a writer? What books you are 100% sure you will never write?

Great question! Most of my previous books have been short stories (each between 2,000 and 15,000 words long) and so far I've only also written poetry and novellas. I am working on two full-length novels at the moment - very slowly! - but I find it incredibly hard and I am beginning to wonder if short fiction is just more my strength. We shall see... In terms of specific genres, I would describe most of my stories as "contemporary fiction" but Shy Feet had at least two romantic stories, London Eyes had a ghost story in it and one story with a bit of magical realism in it, and my third collection Nine Women was definitely woman's fiction and possibly even family fiction, but it also had two very dark stories in it. My novellas are a series of mystery-suspense-thrillers based in modern day urban and gritty London so they're very different from my short stories! I would like to say "never say never" when it comes to what genre I would write in because I really enjoy trying out different genres, but I think it's safe to say I'll never write any Faith literature, and I really don't enjoy reading most Chick Lit so that's not on my radar either.

How did you start WriteNOW cards and what is the feedback from the users so far? 

WriteNOW Cards began because I was fed up! Fed up with how hard writing was sometimes. Fed up with how easy it was to think negatively about my writing. Fed up with how that would then stop me writing. This would then make me feel more fed up and low, and thus a vicious circle began spinning around and around. I'd been aware of these kinds of feelings the whole time I've been writing regularly (since 2012) but I just accepted them as part and parcel of the writing journey. Then I had my son (in July 2015) and I experienced a very hard few years with post-natal depression and anxiety. I started to use affirmations to help feel more positive about myself as a mother and person, and much to my surprise this worked. Once I was feeling better (thanks also to therapy and anti-anxiety medication) and back to work properly in September 2016 I began brainstorming and designing some affirmation cards for writers. Primarily I created them for just me to use, but I knew very early on that there was potential for others to connect with them too and I really felt inspired and motivated by the idea of helping others write more. In summer of 2017 I started an Instagram account and began selling them to other writers.

The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. People love the colours and the affirmations. Those who have the full pack (47 different affirmations) have told me that every card they've picked and read aloud has helped them feel more focused, calmer and more proactive about writing regularly which is exactly what I hoped! I'm hoping to create some new collections for different kinds of writers and also for different stages in the writing process, e.g. editing, planning, publishing and marketing, etc. Watch this space on Twitter and Instagram!

I've read your updates on Instagram and I know that you participated to NaNoWriMo writing marathon. What are your lessons learned so far and what are your recommendations to anyone trying to keep up the pace for a month of daily writing?

NaNoWriMo was the kick up the bum I referred to earlier! While I'd been writing fiction on and off throughout my adult years, I was yet to finish anything but that changed when I committed to NaNoWriMo. I wrote like my life depended on it during November 2012 and by the end of 30 days I had over 53,000 words. I was amazed and felt so incredibly proud of myself, but what suprised me the most was how much fun I'd had over the month. Yes, it had been hard, I'd gotten tired and gotten stuck (lots of times!), but I'd also laughed with my characters, felt what they were feeling and went to sleep thinking about them with a smile on my face. It was weird but wonderful. To this day, finishing that month of writing is the moment I'm most proud of!

My recommendations for anyone doing #NaNoWriMo or for anyone wanting to kickstart a regular writing habit is to make it easy for themselves and do a little preparation in advance. Cancel social engagements, say no to things that aren't necessary, fill your freezer with meals and forget about your laundry pile for a while. Just make writing more of a priority and you may be surprised just how much you get done. And then when you know how good writing feels, you will naturally fit writing into your life... hopefully!

What are your writing plans for the next 12 months?

Right now I'm doing more editing and publishing than writing. I'm working on publishing my first poetry collection, and I'm also at the final editing stages of a non-fiction book I've been working on for a while. I'm editing the next novella in my series set in London, and I'm still plodding my way through the first drafts of those novels I mentioned earlier. Because my son is still young (2.5) I try not to set myself concrete deadlines and strict goals for getting stuff done because I can't write or do as much as I'd like, so if I get any of these things "finished" by the end of the year - I'll be happy! As long as things are moving in the right direction - no matter how slowly - I'm happy. Writing makes me happy.

Photos: Personal archive of the author