The “Blessed Book”

The Secrets of Jin-shei cover frony and back

Hard cover of U.S. HarperCollins edition

An ebook version of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, a historical fantasy that I wrote in a white heat in 2002, was released this year and has sparked renewed interest in the story of a group of women set in a China-that-never-was.

White heat means exactly that. Its 200,000 words took me less than three months to write and what came out was was a clean first draft which required very little editing. This was a story that was ready to live, and to fly.

I’ve never managed to match that blazing speed with any of my other books.

It’s a sweeping epic set in a land I called Syai that is modeled on medieval China; it is the story of a group of women, the Jin-shei sisterhood, who form a uniquely powerful circle that transcends class and social custom. They are bound together by a declaration of loyalty that transcends all other vows, even those with the gods, and by their own secret language passed from mother to daughter, and by the knowledge that some of them will have to pay the ultimate sacrifice to enable others to fulfill their destiny.

It has been published in 13 languages in more than a score of countries. In the United States it was put out by HarperCollins with the help of a wildly enthusiastic editor who loved the story fiercely… but the HC division which produced this book promptly went away as an entity. The book, after an initial publicity push, was pretty much left to fend for itself after the editor who had spoken so eloquently for it was out of the picture.

And yet it did exceedingly well in foreign editions. In Spain, for example, it sold more than 30,000 hardcover copies and “Bestseller” was stamped on the cover, I call it the Blessed Book.

It’s still in print, at least in the USA, but sales had dropped dramatically… until an ebook version as issued and it has been selling steadily ever since.

I am astonished and delighted that it still gets constant and on-going attention on reading venues like Goodreads where it has received 1,480 ratings (averaging just under four stars) and 166 reviews.

It has scored a respectable number of reviews on Amazon but because of Amazon’s astounding marketing power, I’d love to see the number of reviews climb there. (Hint, if anyone reading this blog has read Jin-shei and would like to add an Amazon review, I’d love to know what you think of it.)

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News about Children of a Different Sky

Carl Slaughter interviewed me on my themed fantasy anthology filled with  tales of migrants and refugees, with profits going straight to charities working with refugees and migrant..

CARL SLAUGHTER:  What prompted you to do an anthology with this theme?

ALMA ALEXANDER:  There are seven words that underlie the status of any refugee in the world, ever: “There but for the grace of God…”

It is not a new issue — people who run from disaster in the hope of finding a better future have always been with us. But what IS new is that now it is all being televised on 24-hour 7-days-a-week news channels, always available online on news websites.

We can no longer hide from the misery of these displaced souls because we see them running now — we see them on the crowded boats on open seas, we see them clawing to shore and drowning on the doorstep of salvation, we see them languish in camps where conditions are enough to horrify any sane mind, we see them crowding against barbed wire and against walls and being denied harbor because they are hated and feared and basically unwanted by the populace already on the ground in the places where the migrants wish to go.  People who cannot see that the refugees in this restless and lost crowd might one day, some day, just as easily be themselves.

 

I was eager to do what I could to help and the only way open to do that for someone like myself is to do that thing that I do – Tell Stories. And since there is always strength in numbers and I knew many stellar writers whom I knew I could ask to help this endeavor and who, if they were on board, would make a magnificent contribution.

That is how Children of a Different Sky came to be.

CS:  What was the story selection process?

AA: The theme of the anthology was the migrant/immigrant/refugee experience, and the story criteria were simple enough:

“Make me think; make me feel.”

And oh boy, did the stories in this book deliver on those terms. As an editor, this is a collection of which I am very proud. As a reader…this is one of the most luminous collection of stories I have ever seen in one place. This anthology began as a project with an idea – a charity anthology with proceeds of sales to go to organizations helping migrants and refugees on the ground. During the process of its incarnation, it grew into a living thing with breath and heartbeat.  And every story and poem in this book is one essential component of this transformation.

Read the whole interview HERE:

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

TIME MACHINE REACHES FUTURE!!! … nobody there …
– Harry Harrison

More from Wired HERE

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Quote of the day

Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such, it is made of storytelling material: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness.”  — Psychologist Noam Shpancer

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ALL fiction is fantasy

Alma’s Bookshelf: “The Secrets of Jin-shei”

One of a series of essays on writing referencing my own books for examples

I spend half my life living in dreams, in alternate realities.

That might sound bizarre to some, even verging on pure lunacy – but it applies to every writer of fiction out there. Whether you’re writing contemporary thrillers, historical bodice-rippers, science fiction or pure fairy tale, you face one simple truth – whatever the world you’re in, it’s a world created by YOU.

There are places out there that feel like they have been torn out of the gritty gray reality of our own workaday world, where you can smell the smog in the streets and hear the squeal of brakes. It’s the kind of pure “reality” on which a lot of writers have built careers.

And then there are those, like me, who like to just make it all up.

The very first book I had published was a series of fairy tales, literary stories modeled rather more on the emotional and subtle and almost mystical fairy tales as told by Oscar Wilde. But every single one of those stories had one thing in common. They were set like tiny gems into a setting of their own particular world, a setting I took pains to build and create, a setting in which I lovingly breathed life into every leaf and every rose petal and every drop of sea foam I wrote about.

Worldbuilding is one of the most exhilarating, heady things that it is given to a writer to do. The process of building a world – star by star, tree by tree, shimmering piece of magic by shimmering piece of magic – is unsurpassed by anything that it is possible for the human mind to achieve.

True fantasy is extremely hard to do well, because you cannot rely on the familiar scaffolding of the world that your reader is already familiar with in order to tell your tale. The setting of a fantasy has to be so strong, so unbreakable, so seamless, that it is invisible – much like the real world is in a contemporary novel – and leaves its readers, at the completion of the book, waking up as if from a lovely dream.

But there is another kind of fantasy, one which I value even more highly, “historical” fantasy – the kind that magically invokes an otherness that is almost painfully familiar.

Historical fantasy is the kind that you read knowing, just knowing, that this IS in fact your own world… only different. The kind of book where the author has done a LOT of research into the details of his or her chosen period, and although choices were made for the sake of the story that may not match perfectly with the original historical events, those events are recreated in such a manner that the provenance of the fantasy itself is immediately warmly familiar.

The Secrets of Jin-shei coverWhen I began “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, this is the kind of book that I was writing. I took the rich tapestry of Imperial China, and I unraveled it thread by thread, and then re-wove it into a different world, a different China, my China, one that never really existed – but which owed everything to the time and place of its inspiration and which breathed the same mystical oriental air.

I researched meticulously – but this is not the kind of research that is done for a purely historical novel and aimed at checking facts. I was not going to exactly recreate the facts, I wanted to re-create the sense, the feel, the atmosphere.

My China, a land I called Syai, shared a lot of things with ancient China – not least a religion based on the Tao, and an Imperial court full of beautiful wives and concubines dressed in scarlet brocades and jeweled embroidery.

Most importantly of all, my central premise – the secret women’s language I called “jin ashu” and the bond of sisterhood known as “Jin-shei” that gives the novel its name — is real. There is a women’s language passed from mother to daughter over generations which has survived to the present day in this magical form, although the last of the women who learned the language, nushu, organically at their mothers’ knee are now almost gone. There was a sisterhood, known as “Jiebai Zhimei”, which sometimes linked women in strong bonds of friendship and which had its roots in this secret language that the women shared.

But Syai, my ‘China’, is NOT the real China.

In the real historical China women did not have the kind of power that the women in Syai do. In the real China the women’s language and the secret sisterhood had considerably less global influence than portrayed in the Syai of my novel. I took the reality, unraveled it, re-wove it into a fantasy cloth rich with myth and legend and tradition and history – but only the memory of reality.

Syai is not China, any more than a painting is a precise likeness of a photograph.

When I first submitted the novel for publication, the response was that it was something that “transcended fantasy” – and the novel was subsequently sold to a publisher far more mainstream in outlook than I might have expected it to go to. Reviews have stated that the book is a “genre-buster” and have called it “mainstream fantasy”. It has been published in 13 languages.

And yet I was afraid that there would be people out there who would inevitably pick it up as a “pure” historical novel, and who would shred the culture and milieu of Syai on the basis of the historical inaccuracies on which has been built. Indeed, that happened. For example, one reader wrote in her blog:

I need another recommendation for a good book. The Secrets of Jin-shei turned out to be a pretty good book being female-centered and all. but I still don’t agree with how the author changed so many things with the Chinese culture … I can’t help comparing it to Memoirs of a Geisha…(I felt)l like I was enriched with the Japanese culture… after reading Secrets I couldn’t help but feel cheated. China was never a matriarchal society and yet that is how she portrayed it…”

But “Jin-shei” was never meant to be a factual representation of a culture or a world in the manner that “Memoirs of a Geisha” was.

“The Secrets of Jin-shei” is a dream, not a reality.

It is true, of course, that all fiction, even if set in the ‘real’ world, is fantasy, a story told about a place that seems real, but is not. But it is here, in the realm of fantasy, that this becomes something very important.

Think of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, if you like, as a Westernization of an ancient oriental fairy tale – of the kind that took the world by storm when ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” made its explosive debut on the cinematic scene. (One of my favorite reviews of “Secrets of Jin-shei” , from a place that went by the completely appropriate name of China Books, cited that movie: “Combine ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ with ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ add elements of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,’ and you have this astonishing novel.” )

It is a dream. An alternate reality. A place that could have, might have, should have existed… but never did, except in my heart and my mind.

Buy “The Secrets of Jin-shei” HERE

A fuller version of this essay appeared on the Book View Café HERE

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What the hell do you call it?

If you are writing a novel about historical events, how do you talk about it? Is it:

Historical Fantasy? Alternative History? Fictionalisation? Reinvention?

When it comes to this particular literary sub-genre, definitions, it would seem, are EVERYTHING. On a panel at a SF/Fantasy convention once, five of us spent fully twenty minutes of our hour just trying to hammer out what we were actually talking about.

This is not just an academic discussion for writers like me, it gets to the heart of how readers can find our books on the shelf in a bookstore or library.

Empress‘, my latest fat *historical fantasy*, was inspired by the story of Justinian and Theodora of Byzantium. They are historical figures, whose complex relationship has been the subject of much analysis and commentary, from the biased and somewhat malicious historian Procopius in their own time, to the present day.

Empress coverWhen I originally began shopping the novel around, I was offered a deal on the condition that I pulled back on the “fantasy” aspect and made this a straight “historical” narrative. The story of ‘Empress’ might have seen publication much earlier had I been willing to do this – but I was not.

The two protagonists of my novel were inspired by people who once lived and loved… but they are not those people. And it is MY characters’ version of this story that I am telling, an emotional truth, rather than a strictly strait-laced historical version of events.

I didn’t want to put dialogue into the mouths of those real people. I transplanted a seed of their spirit into fictional characters who live in a world that is like our own but is not that world. I took pains to underline this.

Some readers and reviewers have problems with this. For example, a Library Thing reviewer of ‘Empress‘ wrote: “This story is so close to historical fiction that a part of me wishes the author had actually not shifted events and names around to make it an alternate history. This is an entirely personal preference, though – I simply like historical fiction with as much accuracy as possible, especially when the author is as skilled at writing powerful prose as this one is.”

The glory of historical fantasy is just this – it is the alchemy inherent in the sub-genre that you can take something from the world the reader has lived in all their lives and change it into something different, something rich and strange, and yet something that is utterly and remarkably and shiveringly familiar if held up to the light in a certain way.

And it is the ability to that which frees my storytelling mind and produces the kind of stories that I write, lush with both the richness and depth of history and the shimmer and shine and power of an imagination unbound.

All of my historical fiction – although individual books may have no actual direct connection with one another – are actually set in the same alternate world. What I am writing is nothing less than a chronicle of a different universe. ‘Secrets of Jin She’” told of a country that I named Syai even though it clearly was inspired by Imperial China; ‘Embers of Heaven‘ is set in that same world, in that same country, some four centuries after the first book.

In ‘Empress’, vigilant readers will catch a reference to a trade expedition which is leaving from my new milieu to “Syai, the place where silk comes from”. These places exist in the same space, much like Imperial China and Byzantium co-existed in our own reality.

This is a complex but fascinating subect. Any reader of my blog who wants more can go to SF Signal and read the whole article HERE

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THIS & THAT

Michigan Couple Faces Jail Time Over Lost Dr. Seuss Library Book

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Man returns library book with apology note after 49 years

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Teacher seeks to solve mystery of 200-year-old Jane Austen book mailed to high school

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Quote of the Day

Aeoma Of Books poster~~~~~
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‘Do you even science, bro?’

At Jstor Daily, Chi Luu examines how nouns suddenly become verbs, and talks about popular internet memes like “Let me librarian that for you” and “Do you even science, bro?” in which “librarian” and “science” are nouns weirdly disguised as verbs.

“So is this a playful new linguistic construction,” he asks, “or is it time to roll our eyes at the internet, again?”

Read his whole delightful essay HERE

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Two more of my newest novels are now also out as  ebooks

The print version of my newest book, ‘Empress‘, has been available for a short bit, and now the ebook version is out;  as is the ebook version of ‘Shifter‘..

Empress cover‘If you like Guy Gavriel Kay, you will love ‘Empress’. — Kari Sperring, author of ‘Living with Ghosts’ and ‘The Grass King’s Concubine’.

‘Empress’ is a historical fantasy inspired by the saga of real-world Byzantine Emperor Justinian and the courtesan Theodora, one of the greatest love stories in world history.

In my world, my protagonist is Simonis, a woman who lived many lives before rising to the top – a helpless child in circus performances, an accomplished courtesan and spy, a heretic who sheltered men thought to be damned for what they believed. Emperor Maxentius is the man who loves her enough to drape the Imperial purple over her shoulders even though his entire culture recoils.

When he marries Simonis and gives her a new name, Callidora, he makes her a partner in the ruling of the empire. When the Empire faces a rebellion that appears unstoppable, Maxentius and his generals are prepared to flee the raging mobs. But Callidora announces that the men can do what they want, but she will not run.

If I must die, purple makes a good shroud.”

The men are shamed into standing their ground and the Empire survives.

Buy Empress HERE

And now ‘Shifter‘, third book in The Were Chronicles, is finally out as an ebook.

Buy Shifter HERE

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At Mental Floss, Jennifer M Wood examines

The $80 million typo – For want of a hyphen…

Mariner One photoMariner 1 on takeoff

NASA’S one little mistake

The damage: $80 million

Hyphens don’t usually score high on the list of most important punctuation. But a single dash led to absolute failure for NASA in 1962 in the case of Mariner 1, America’s first interplanetary probe. The mission was simple: get up close and personal with close neighbor Venus. But a single missing hyphen in the coding used to set trajectory and speed caused the craft to explode just minutes after takeoff. 2001: A Space Odyssey novelist Arthur C. Clarke called it “the most expensive hyphen in history.”

See all the other typos HERE

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At The Dodo, Stephen Messenger tells us how

Kids bring shy shelter dogs out of their shells by reading to themKids read to Dogs photoHumane Society of Missouri

An innovative new idea, called the Shelter Buddies Reading Program, is already making a huge difference for animals at the Humane Society of Missouri. The idea is simple: train kids to read to dogs as a way of readying them for forever homes, all while instilling a greater sense of empathy in the youngsters, too.

Read the whole story HERE

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At BuzzFeed, Selina Churchill reports on

Sex, misery, and cliffhangers — Writing Fanfiction

For example:

Smut is popular: The fastest way to get your story read by thousands is to write for a big fandom like Supernatural or Buffy, and slap an “Adult” rating on it…show it all in eye-melting detail.

The ubiquity of smut in fanfic is a surprise to nobody. TV writing features hot people in the most intense situations they can invent. Who can be shocked that viewers develop fantasies about The Doctor or Scully or Loki? Come on. You give the world sexy werewolves, and the world will sit at its keyboard typing “Drip the wax on me, Edward.”

Read the whole story HERE

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THIS & THAT

SheKnows Website offers free Ruth Bader Ginsburg Coloring Book

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Men Give Up on Books Sooner Than Women: Study

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Harper Lee’s estate will no longer allow publication of the inexpensive paperback edition that was popular with schools.

Cheap paperbacks of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ no longer available

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Quote of the DayAstrology posterCan’t argue with that.

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You feel WHAT?

Invented words for emotions you never realised anyone else felt

Daniel Dalton of BuzzFeed writes about perfect words invented by graphic designer John Koenig that you can find in his book, “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.”

Take for example an emotion that every writer knows all too wellJouska invented word Daniel Dalton / BuzzFeed / unsplash.com / Via dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com

Then there is a feeling that my husband and I shared at our first meeting in person after months of chatting on the Internet. Walking across a bridge in Vancouver, we both looked at a towering high rise across the river and silently marveled at all the lighted windows and the hidden lives behind them. Neither of us said a word out loud and only discovered our thoughts had been mirrored that night during a discussion years after we were married.
Sonder invented wordDaniel Dalton / BuzzFeed / unsplash.com / Via dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com

See 21 other perfect newly invented words HERE

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At The Guardian, author Carolyne Larrington notes that from George RR Martin to Umberto Eco, many writers have been inspired by stories of the middle ages and she selects “some of the best.” (see below)

As I write fantasy and I love that period myself, it made me reflect on my own reading and writing history, which is one reason, of course, that such lists are always popular.

“Kristin Lavransdottir” was a fat book that I picked up when I was thirteen or so and I sank into it and happily drowned in it. But that’s a straight HISTORICAL novel. So, if you leave out the slightly romantizised aspects, it is something like “Ivanhoe”, another early love of mine.

But Larrington’s list also includes mythology (Beowulf) and straight fantasy (the Game of Thrones stuff) – so it’s very much a cart of mixed apples and oranges. Do we want straight history? Then why isn’t Sharon Kay Penman on this list? Do we want historical fantasy? Where’s Judith Tarr or Guy Gavriel Kay?

I realize that it’s only a short list and they were trying for exhaustive, but that’s the problem with lists like this. People like T H White and J R R Tolkien get mentioned only in passing in order to leave space for the “modern”, i.e. post mid-last-century, contributions. Apples and oranges…

I write fantasy myself, both the epic high-fantasy kind (“Hidden Queen”/”Changer of Days” duology) and historical (“Secrets of Jin Shei”, broadly based in a milieu inspired by historical China,  or my forthcoming Byzantine epic, “Empress”), So I have a stake in books like this, I love reading them, I love getting immersed in them, I love the fact that they underlay, through fiction, a real and inspired interest in both literature and history in those who read them… but this list is a little, erm, eclectic…What exactly are the criteria here?

Larrington’s Top 10 modern medieval tales include:
Name Of The Rose, movie

Sean Connery and F Murray Abraham in the film version of The Name of the Rose. Photograph: THE RONALD GRANT ARCHIVE

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980): This dazzling first novel has brilliant plotting and witty in-jokes (its hero – played by Sean Connery in the film version – is William of Baskerville in a nod to the great detective), combined with a profound understanding of medieval intellectual history. How might medieval – and, indeed, our own culture – have been different if Aristotle’s lost second book of the Poetics, exploring the importance of comedy, had survived? Vividly explaining the primary political and theological questions of the 13th century, the novel finds a kind of sequel in Baudolino (2000), but it’s this one that I regularly reread.

See the rest of Larrington’s list HERE

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In an essay at The Los Angeles Review of Books, Christopher Grobe discusses

The Case of the Missing Detective: William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes

Gillette As HolmesWhen an actor playing Sherlock Holmes dons the the deerstalker cap, smokes a curved pipe, and crows, ‘Elementary, my dear fellow’, he may believe he’s being faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle, Grobe writes.

“But he’s actually paying homage to William Gillette, the American actor who wrote, produced, and starred in the first dramatization of Doyle’s tales.”

When I tweeted about Grobe’s article and confessed that I had never heard of William Gillette, a New England friend quickly enlightened me.

Gillette CastleNobody does until the 5th grade field trip to Gillette Castle,” Mary Jo Place told me. “After that I think it’s on the Connecticut Residency Test.”

She offered to take me to the castle the next time I visit and I may have to take her up on that.

It is common, Grobe writes in his LARB article, to calculate Gillette’s contribution to the Sherlock Holmes mythology — one deerstalker hat plus a meerschaum pipe times a half-dozen Elementaries! But, he adds, this hardly does justice to Gillette’s impact.

Doyle may have invented the character, but it was Gillette who created the man. He gave a body to that infamous mind, a voice to those words, and a style to Holmes’s very being. As one critic observed in 1929, while announcing Gillette’s return to the stage, Gillette’s face and figure, his voice and manner, gave the entire English-speaking world their mental image of Sherlock Holmes.”

Read the whole fascinating article HERE

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Quote of the Day
He RemembersAnd you forget THAT at your peril!

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Alma Alexander       My books       Email me
 
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Overlooked, again!

Lithub has come up with a sadly commonplace story idea:

10 Great Books by Women Overlooked in 2015

Of their selections, one caught my eye particularly – “Bohemian Gospel.” It’s the kind of thing I am always looking for, the richness of history, a touch of the mystic and the magical – what’s not to love? I may have to investigate that forthwith. (More on Bohemian Gospel and the other books below)

Empress coverBut while you might want to go and do likewise, I’d also like to bring your attention to my own lush new historical fantasy, “Empress”, the story of the girl who clawed her way up from abject poverty to become what she was always destined to be, the ruler of an empire

It is being published in March 2016. You can receive a signed copy of this nearly 600-page epic novel at a special pre-publication price of $20 including free shipping (to the U.S. and Canada.) Buy one now and you get a signed cover card which tells the gift recipient that their present is coming. It is the perfect stocking stuffer.

You can order it HERE.

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Back to your scheduled program, great books by overlooked women:

Bohemian GospelBohemian Gospel, Dana Chamblee Carpenter: The girl known only as “Mouse” came to her monastery home as an orphan and there, in 13th-century Bohemia, learned ancient healing arts. When her talents attract the attention of the young king, Ottokar, it seems like a fairy tale waiting to unfold—but Carpenter has other fish (demons?) to fry. Mouse’s knowledge and abilities make her special, but don’t guarantee her safety or happiness. About time for a woman on a quest.

See the other nine books HERE

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I suffer from this syndrome. And my husband wonders why I can’t go to sleep at night.

21 Tweets That Prove Your Brain Can Be A Real Dick Sometimes

Me: *tries to sleep* Brain: HEY, remember that really embarrassing thing you did seven years ago? Let’s have a think about that. Gena-mour Barrett collects hilarious samples for BuzzFeed.  For example:Brain TweetsSee all the tweets HERE

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I’ve linked to this before, but it’s a wonderfully useful idea and almost hypnotic in execution.

Writer creates “Color Thesaurus” to help you correctly name any color imaginable

Ingrid Sundberg, a writer and children’s book illustrator, created a infographic chart for anyone struggling with color names, Julija Nėjė writes.

“I’ve learned that we all have different associations with color words,” she told Bored Panda. “For example the color sapphire is a light blue to me (since that’s the color of the sapphire on my engagement ring), but a sapphire can also be a very dark blue.”

And when it comes to purple…Color Thesaurus PurpleSee the whole Color Thesaurus HERE

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19 Teachers Were Asked:

What’s the worst mistake a student has ever made?

At Reddit, Laura McCallum collect the hilarious answers. e.g.Mistakes.See all the mistakes HERE

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Walk through the British Museum without going to London

One of the greatest museums in the world has partnered with Google, Luke Chandler writes, to let you visit without leaving home. You can now “walk” through the British Museum using Google Street View to observe thousands of artifacts as if you are there in person.British Museum Egypt GalleryRead the whole story HERE

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THIS & THAT

3D paintings for blind

 

 

Unseen Art:

3D Printing Classical Paintings for the Blind

Read Johnny Strategy’s story HERE

 

 

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Grocery bags Mats

 

Woman uses grocery bags to weave hundreds of mats for the homeless

 

 

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Quote of the DayMark TwainThe man knew what he was talking about, didn’t he? But that aside, any talk of the virtues of travel makes me want to catch the next boat, plane, or train and go exploring.

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Alma Alexander      My books      Email me

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