A Skeptical Believer’s Journey through the New Age
Part memoir, part invitation to spiritual exploration, Amal Awad’s curious and accepting book In My Past Life I Was Cleopatra moves through New Age practices with hope.
“The truth about humanity is that we require belief,” Awad writes, “even if it’s in the rejection of the idea of something greater than ourselves.” For Awad, who grew up in a Palestinian Muslim household in Australia, such belief was, at first, a matter of inheritance: she clung to her family’s monotheistic tradition into early adulthood, hoping it could center her. But, she admits, those modalities ultimately failed to bring her fulfillment.
In her thirties, Awad began a more intuitive search. Prompted by a self-help book that truly helped her, she investigated New Age spirituality, where she found, and continues to find, practices that sate and center her, as well as those that awaken her inner skeptic.
Interacting with mediums, crystals, yogis, and magic, Awad addresses both concerning aspects of “woo woo” and freeing ones. She talks about how aura and tarot readings helped to center her in times of need, and she interacts with New Age luminaries who help to clarify that practice is as much about what you bring to it as it is its own spiritual form. She discusses how the New Age is rooted in ancient traditions, but also how it is exploratory and daring; she makes room for doubters, and in doing so, welcomes them into New Age’s varied and inviting folds.
From faerie hills to rock stores where every crystal’s source is known and honorable, Awad’s experiences encourage, without pushing, her audience to “experiment, enjoy, [and] be discerning in how you expend your time and energy.” Surprising and delightful, In My Past Life I Was Cleopatra is a spiritual seeker’s traipse through the New Age.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (June 27, 2021)
The beauty and mystery of the forest invites and enchants in this story about how working together can create something more beautiful than anyone could accomplish alone. Maya has meticulously planned out her tree fort, but she runs into some trouble with the execution. Some new forest friends lend a hand to create a place they can all share and enjoy. The sun-dappled and rain-streaked illustrations track their symbiotic work to its beautiful result.
DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (June 27, 2021)
Recipes and Stories from the Balkan
Katerina Nitsou’s Macedonia is a vibrant introduction to a Balkan culture and cuisine that is “modest, simple, and honest.”
Though there is a present-day country of North Macedonia, Nitsou’s work identifies Macedonia as a larger region that covers the kingdom of Alexander the Great astride the Balkan Peninsula. It was later overlaid with fragmented borders fixed by eras of ethnic and political conquest. Nitsou describes the culture as unique in its blend of Mediterranean, Eastern Orthodox, and Ottoman influences, and grounded in strong connections to farming and foraging.
Meat was often a luxury ingredient in Macedonia, reserved for holidays or for selling in local markets, so these recipes center on vegetables and grains. Peppers are a special favorite; they show up roasted, stuffed, tucked into soups and stews, and blended with eggplants into Ajvar, a popular dip and condiment. Beans also feature into many recipes, including Tavche Gravche, the white bean stew that is Macedonia’s national dish. Other flavors thrum throughout this “rustic and unassuming” cuisine, including lemon, cinnamon, mint, and garlic, which is used as a cure-all by Nitsou’s relatives: “they amped it up any chance they could.”
Birthdays, name days, and religious holidays call for serving more elaborate foods. Chapters on breads and satko (sweets) showcase the beautiful pull-apart braids of Pogacha, which is served at weddings, as well as savory and sweet coiled pastries stuffed with spiced feta and ricotta, and syrup-drenched baklava and Ravanija cake.
The clear recipes are introduced with bits of family and cultural background. Most are accompanied by instructive color photographs of the finished dish, while endearing photographs of Nitsou’s family members, and others of Macedonian landmarks and its mountainous, sun-dappled landscape, are welcome additions to this personal interpretation of a distinctive culture.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (June 27, 2021)
In Susie Finkbeiner’s touching novel The Nature of Small Birds, an unusual adoption shows that families don’t have to be perfect in order to be loving.
In the first of three interconnected story lines, Linda marries into the Matthews family in the 1970s. She and her husband, Bruce, welcome a bossy young girl into the world; their life is filled with small ups and downs. Linda feels an intense need to have another baby, and the Vietnam War results in an opportunity to adopt a displaced child.
The second story line is set in the 1980s, and focuses on Linda’s oldest daughter, Sonny, and her adopted sister, Mindy, as they come of age. It is lighthearted, following along as the girls mature and adjust to their changing family dynamic. Its thematic focus on growth and understanding relationships comes to the fore as Mindy balances fitting in with staying true to herself.
Later, the book zooms in on tenderhearted Bruce in 2013. He grapples with the challenges presented by his ailing parents and confronts his own mortality. It’s a marked shift from his young wife and daughter’s experiences—more concerned on late reflections on life and family. But Bruce and Linda also prepare to help Mindy search out information about her time as an uprooted child in Vietnam.
Though each of the story lines could stand alone, their combination is masterful, resulting in a balanced story that’s rich with nuance and gentle emotions. As the book moves from considerations of personal identity and war to those of growth, the Matthews family learns, again and again, that life isn’t perfect.
In the novel The Nature of Small Birds, a family deals with heartbreak, loss, joy, and healing across generations; their love and faith keeps them together.
JOHN M. MURRAY (June 27, 2021)
In Nicole Kornher-Stace’s science fiction novel Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, an eleven-year-old jets into serious space trouble when she’s stranded with snarky tech, poisonous parasites, and a long week of big decisions.
Eleven-year-old Jillian is a worrier and a prodigious planner. Her ultimate plan begins with going “with her parents to StellaTech [to] see where all that sweet, sweet space magic happened.” It was supposed to be all about her best behavior, feeding into her hope to get a job there as an adult. But then her parents surprised her with a week-long exploration mission in space, headed to a planet that was thought to be innocuous.
When Jillian’s parents are put out of commission, Sabrina the omnibot, who may or may not follow orders, becomes her only companion. Sabrina is a sidekick of epic proportions, who can take on any shape and perform almost any task. Sabrina delivers bad jokes, engages in food preparation, and is a source of comic relief—as well as a sarcastic foil for serious Jillian. But Sabrina is also a guardian, scout, and even a three-legged dog.
The parasite world features unexpected flora and fauna that test Jillian’s intellectual and emotional mettle throughout her adventure. Her anxious disposition is written with respect: though she’s fearful, she remains able to think through a problem. Indeed, her “overthinking” becomes an asset. Around every space boulder and puddle, Jillian uses her savvy, deduction skills, and intuition to navigate an unfamiliar, hostile environment.
Jillian vs. Parasite Planet is a smart science fiction adventure that celebrates its heroine’s ingenuity and independence, even in circumstances that are out of this world.
CAMILLE-YVETTE WELSCH (June 27, 2021)