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The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 361 pgs.
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The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is the journey of Xiomara Batista, a young teen in Harlem who has secrets. She’s becoming a young woman aware of boys and a longing for acceptance — an acceptance of herself. She must come to terms with her religious mother and restricted upbringing and the reality that she does not fit the spiritual mold her mother had hoped for. The novel is told in verse.

The verse is reminiscent of childhood entries in a journal — rough and raw — full of emotion. Xiomara finds sanctuary in her words and her poems. She struggles with sexism and being a twin to a boy she feels disconnected from. Who is Poet X?

It is a journey of self-discovery. She finds strength from her pastor, despite her religious questions, and from her teacher who inspires her to read her words aloud. But all of this strength can be blown away by one woman who is also unclear about her life and her daughter and how things all went wrong.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is deliciously dramatic but it never loses its poetic center — the exploration of self and the journey toward a stronger self that can stand in the face of chaos.

RATING: Cinquain

Good Crooks: Missing Monkey! by Mary Amato and Ward Jenkins

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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Good Crooks: Missing Monkey! by Mary Amato and Ward Jenkins is a story about kids whose parents are thieves, but they have other plans. Billy and Jillian Crook are happy to do good deeds, but one good deed lands them in hot water when their parents assume they are at the zoo to steal a monkey. Complete with funny lists of what taking care of a monkey is like, these two Crooks are sure to have kids reacting out loud — whether that’s with loud EWWs or laughter.

My daughter has been reading all summer, which is a plus given that last summer she flat out refused. We’re now in a nighttime reading routine, which I hope to continue in the fall when school starts. With this one she read 2-3 chapters per night because she wanted to see what happened next. It took her a few chapters to get into the story, which is told from Billy’s point of view. Razzle the monkey made the story even more funny, since he liked to cause mischief.

Good Crooks: Missing Monkey! by Mary Amato and Ward Jenkins is a delightful story with adventure, humor, and gross stuff that kids will relate to. There are a number of harder words that kids will have to sound out, but it is well worth the effort. There’s also an underlying message about the power of doing good deeds not only for your own community, but for yourself too.

RATING: Quatrain

The Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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The Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman offers a variety of tales of Bunjitsu Bunny, who is a master of the arts. Isabel is a thinker, and she often finds a more peaceful solution to any challenge she faces. Although the Bunjitsu Code is at the end of the book, it is clear throughout the book that the code is Isabel’s guiding force. This early chapter book for young readers offers simple fables with a mix of Eastern philosophy and simple black and white drawings with red. These tales are a new twist on older stories like ‘Tortoise and the Hare.”

Isabel is the best in her class, but she rarely uses brute force to solve problems. My daughter has been looking for books to keep up with her reading this summer, but she initially balked at this story. She told me that she was not into ninjas, but she quickly changed her mind when she started reading. I think Isabel’s calm personality, intelligence, and ability to address problems without fighting interested her.

The Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman is a delightful early chapter book for young readers. It has enough illustrations to illicit laughs and interest from young readers. She’s eager to get the next book in this series.

RATING: Cinquain

We Will Tell You Otherwise by Beth Mayer

Source: Caitlin Hamilton Marketing
Paperback, 140 pgs.
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We Will Tell You Otherwise by Beth Mayer, winner of the Hudson Prize, is a collection of short stories with quirky characters. Readers will be exposed to the unexpected, as the dead teach us that there is not a moment to waste and the mentally ill provide us with greater clarity than we expect about our lives.

Characters in these stories are frustrated and lost, but they find directions they never expected. With sly irony, Mayer has crafted a set of stories that will open readers’ minds to new points of view, forcing us to examine our own lives and how we perceive others, especially those living just outside the mainstream. Many of these characters are on the verge of irrevocable change in their lives, and there are moments that happen that can change it all.

While of the stories in We Will Tell You Otherwise are vastly different, at their heart, Beth Mayer takes her readers on a journey to explore human fragility and faults, while not losing their sense of hope. These characters have a lot to tell readers.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Beth Mayer’s fiction has appeared in The Threepenny ReviewThe Sun Magazine, and The Midway Review. Her stories have been anthologized in New Stories from the Midwest (Ohio University/Swallow Press) and American Fiction (New Rivers Press), and have been recognized by Best American Mystery Stories among “Other Distinguished Stories.” Beth’s collection was a finalist for the 2016 Orison Book Prize and the 2015 Many Voices Project. The Missouri Review’s 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in fiction named her a finalist and her work in Jet Fuel Review has been nominated for the 2017 Best of the Net. Beth holds an MFA from Hamline University, was a Loft Mentor Series Winner in Fiction for 2015-16, and coordinates the Creative Writing Certificate at Century College. She lives in Minneapolis/St. Paul with her family and impossibly loyal dog.

Wallace and Grace and the Cupcake Caper by Heather Alexander and Laura Zarrin

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Wallace and Grace and the Cupcake Caper by Heather Alexander and Laura Zarrin is a cute chapter book that was easy for my daughter to read to me every night. As we’re trying to keep her on track for reading, this was a great choice since she seems to like animal main characters and mysteries. Wallace is a note taker during the case, and he makes sure that all the clues are captured. Grace is a thinker and puzzle solver. She loves to see all the pieces strewn about and ready for her to put together.

Monty the chipmunk’s cupcake is stolen, and he points the finger at the groundhog, Sal, but Sal insists he didn’t take it. He does admit to eating some of the frosting. As Wallace and Grace follow the clues, readers soon find that some other things are missing from the forest.

Wallace and Grace and the Cupcake Caper by Heather Alexander and Laura Zarrin is a great starter chapter book for early readers that still has enough illustrations to keep kids motivated and engaged. My daughter was excited about getting the next book in the series.

RATING: Quatrain

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 13+ hrs.
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Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, narrated by Rebecca Lowman, is a true-crime look at murder in Los Angeles through the lens of one reporter and a case of black-on-black crime that was solved. The murder of a black cop’s son, Bryant Tennelle, by a gang member and a young man trying to fit in and stay on the good side of a gang member is not the case I expected to hear about in this book. With all Leovy’s talk about black-on-black crime and how there is a sort of lawlessness and take-it-in-their-own-hands mentality there, I expected to hear about someone other than the “good” son of a cop who chose to raise his family in the district where he worked as a homicide detective and police officer.

The case does highlight a bit of hero-worship on the part of the author with regard to Detective John Skaggs, who led the investigation. Skaggs is a persistent investigator, and Leovy does mention that his skills have closed many cases, which made me wonder why she focused on the case he helped solve related to the death of a cop’s son. Although it seems she is trying to suggest that the case wasn’t solved effectively because the victim was the son of a police officer, her entire book does the opposite, especially when there is no counterpoint to this case. As a reader, I would like to have seen another case in parallel involving another black man who was not the son of a police officer and how that case unfolded in the department.

The most enlightening part of the narrative is the commentary on how the criminal justice system has devalued the lives of all black men in these communities by failing to invest the time and resources necessary to investigate their murders. In her passages about how departments were merely pushing papers around and closing cases without putting the time in — unlike Skaggs who persistently visited and revisited communities to find evidence and witnesses — it is clear that real police work was not being done and that the officers gave up easily and had too little resources to follow-up on evidence or tips, etc. This is not to say that there were not officers and detectives in those departments who were not dedicated to finding the murderers, but without appropriate resources, the deck can be stacked against them actually closing cases.

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, narrated by Rebecca Lowman, takes on a large problem in America — black-on-black on crime. The topic is a bit broad, and while she uses one case as an example, it might be the wrong one for her to have used. In the author’s note, it is clear she relied heavily on reports she wrote for news outlets, and she did offer a great many statistics. But what she espouses is a tougher state-based control over enforcement, and I’m not sure that’s the right answer, especially given many cases of bias, policy brutality, and the over enforcement/sentencing of minor crimes involving black men. This book has a lot of discussion points, however, and would be fantastic for book clubs.

RATING: Tercet

Pug Pals: Two’s a Crowd by Flora Ahn

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 121 pgs.
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Pug Pals: Two’s a Crowd by Flora Ahn is a story about accepting change and learning to accept a new situation — and eventually come to enjoy it. Sunny is a pug who is spoiled by her owner, with a billion stuffed toys, run of the house, and lots of love. But when her owner brings her not another new toy but a little sister pug named Rosy, Sunny is less than pleased. She doesn’t like sharing at all, and she’s annoyed by Rosy’s antics all the time. She particularly hates how Rosy is always slobbering all over her ears.

Eventually, Sunny blows up angrily when Rosy loses Sunny’s favorite stuffed bunny. Sunny says some harsh things to Rosy. After cooling off, Sunny has to go out in search of her little sister and her missing stuffed toy.

This summer, my daughter and I have traveled to the library in search of more challenging books to read, so she doesn’t lose her skills over the summer. We’ve read this book together over the last week or so in between summer swim team activities. For the most part, the story was right up her alley with animals and a mystery. There were some harder words for her to sound out, which was good, but also a bit frustrating for her. But overall she enjoyed the adventure with these two pups.

Pug Pals: Two’s a Crowd by Flora Ahn is a good read for early readers looking for a challenge, but who also want some illustrations to help them visualize the story, too. There are about 10 chapters in this book, so we’re gearing up for longer chapter books. We’ll likely seek out book 2 in this series.

RATING: Quatrain

The Child by Jan Hahn (audio)

Source: Meryton Press
Audiobook, 8+ hrs.
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The Child by Jan Hahn, narrated by Neil Roy McFarlane, imagines that Mr. Darcy is so heartbroken by Elizabeth Bennet’s rejection of his proposal at Hunsford that he drags Mr. Bingley on a European tour to forget about her. Upon his return, things have changed for the worse for the Bennet family and an illegitimate child has been born. He assumes that Elizabeth Bennet is the mother when he sees her on the streets of London with the child. It is this child that has driven a deep wedge between them, and Darcy must not only address Elizabeth’s assessment of his character, but also just how much, if at all, he had changed.

The narration was well done, and McFarlane was a convincing Darcy, as well as other characters. I loved that he brought a passion to Darcy’s inner thoughts. Something that is rarely seen or heard in other novels.

Told from Darcy’s point of view, we get an inside look at how heartbroken he was when he was rejected and how hard it is to see his unrequited love with a child that is not his own. He must learn to suppress his renewed desire for her, as he also strives to eliminate the blight on the Bennet family name. Unfortunately, in doing so, Darcy sinks to disguise (something he abhors) and in many ways falls below Elizabeth’s already scathing assessment of him. This was a bit tough to like, as was his sudden proposal at a time when his own reputation would be harmed. I do see how he was desperate, and those in love will do foolish things.

The Child by Jan Hahn, narrated by Neil Roy McFarlane, was a treat in terms of ingenuity on the part of the author and her rendering of the characters given the situation they found themselves in. Without giving too much away, Elizabeth and Darcy have even more obstacles to overcome, especially as Wickham plays a pivotal role in what could keep them apart forever.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Jan Hahn is fascinated by Jane Austen, 19th Century England, and true love. Having spent years in the world of business, she is now content to leave it behind and concentrate on writing about Austen’s characters finding true love in 19th Century England. A storyteller since childhood, she’s written skits and plays for local organizations and owned a business recording, writing and publishing oral histories. Jan is a member of JASNA and began writing novels based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 2002. Jan’s first novel, An Arranged Marriage, won the award for Best Indie book of 2011 from Austen Prose.

Phoenix: Transformation Poems by Jessica Goody

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 102 pgs.
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Phoenix: Transformation Poems by Jessica Goody offers poems of resilience and transformation, moving beyond tragedy and disappointment to a place of peace and hope. There are times when the readers is left with an ending that has no way forward, and isn’t that the way of relationships. Sometimes they just end, like in “Bitter Tea,” where a a broken relationship cannot be mended with tea.

Or in “Changeling” where it is clear a relationship has ended and while the phone is no longer ringing, the memories of laughter and intense blue eyes are still present. These are the lingering ghosts of our lives — we carry them with us as we move on. While we mourn them, we also realize that they are a part of who we are.

Goody’s poems inspired by art and paintings are vivid and conjure images in readers heads.

From “Blue Landscape” (pg. 37)

(Marc Chagall, “Couple in a Blue Landscape,” 1949)

They lie in the curve of the crescent moon,
a cosmic cradle, a gondola hovering in the sky.
He admires her lapis hair, her bare shoulders

and sodalite skin. A thousand shades of blue flicker,
rendering them luminous and ethereal as mermaids,
blue-green women with bodies as ripe as dark plums.

Her images conjure the feeling of the painting, like the brushstrokes that created it. We are inside the painting, voyeurs just at frame’s edge. While there is beauty, there is also great sadness. The poem, “Memory,” is devastatingly beautiful as a man holds the hands of a woman he loves but who no longer remembers him as her memories have faded … been stolen away. Phoenix: Transformation Poems by Jessica Goody is the embodiment of transformation — it can be beautiful, tragic, sad, and inspiring. Goody’s work is poignant and lasting.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Jessica Goody is the award-winning author of Defense Mechanisms: Poems on Life, Love, and Loss (Phosphene Publishing, 2016) and Phoenix: Transformation Poems (CW Books, 2019). Goody’s writing has appeared in over three dozen publications, including The Wallace Stevens Journal, Reader’s Digest, Event Horizon, The Seventh Wave, Third Wednesday, The MacGuffin, Harbinger Asylum and The Maine Review. Jessica is a columnist for SunSations Magazine and the winner of the 2016 Magnets and Ladders Poetry Prize. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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The Daughter’s Tale by Armando Lucas Correa

Source: TLC Book Tours
Hardcover, 320 pgs.
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The Daughter’s Tale by Armando Lucas Correa is a framed story in which Elise Duval must confront a past she has forgotten. A young woman and her daughter visit Duval and return to her items that were lost after the World War II. This is just the opening of the book of Duval’s journey from the present into the past.

“She knew well that no matter how the author fashions his characters, no matter which words he chooses, it is always the reader who holds the power of interpretation.” (pg. 12)

In 1939, Amanda and Julius Sternberg are a young family who find their home in Berlin is turning into something very ugly as the Nazi’s grow more powerful. Amanda owns a bookshop. Julius is a cardiac doctor but soon finds he’s no longer allowed to practice because he’s Jewish and when he is taken away from his family, Amanda is left to make decisions on here own for herself and her two daughters. Much of the WWII history is familiar in this story, but the connection between a mother and her daughters becomes a heavy theme throughout the book.

How do you decide what is best for yourself and your children when there is pressure not only from a government that has branded you an undesirable and from those willing to help you because they feel an obligation to your arrested husband. Correa’s novel is heartbreaking for more reasons than how many people are abused, murdered, thrown out of the only homes they have ever known, and separated from their families. Amanda has to make some tough choices and place her children’s safety above her own.

“We distance ourselves from the past far too quickly,” she told herself. (pg. 86)

Fleeing to southern France, her family finds a bit of peace. Living with Claire Duval, an old family friend, the Sternbergs fall into a rhythm of helping out at the farm and going to school. This lull is only a respite from the hunters conquering those around them. Amanda is again forced to make one of the biggest decisions to save her family.

It’s very easy to fall into this story and to feel the deep rip of these decisions and the far-reaching effects of these decisions not only on the mother, but also on the daughters. Mixed into this dynamic is Claire Duval and her own daughter, Danielle, and how they act and react to the Sternbergs and the struggles they face simply because they are offering them shelter. The bonds between these mothers and their daughters are like steel, even when memories begin to fade and details get a bit fuzzy for the children as the war continues and seems endless.

The Daughter’s Tale by Armando Lucas Correa is a beautiful tale of resilience and survival. My only complaint was that I wanted more about Viera, the eldest daughter, and I wanted more about Elise after the war. Perhaps there is a sequel in the works? I would love that! This was a wonderful story and stands as a testament to the families that faced death and horror during WWII and came out the other side more resilient than anyone would have expected.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Armando Lucas Correa is an award-winning journalist, editor, author, and the recipient of several awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the Society of Professional Journalism. He is the author of the international bestseller The German Girl, which is now being published in thirteen languages. He lives in New York City with his partner and their three children. Connect: Website | Facebook | Twitter

The 3-Day Effect by Florence Williams (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 3+ hours
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The 3-Day Effect by Florence Williams is a quick look at the effects of being out in nature and how it can “calm” the brain. Cognitive neuroscientist David Strayer, who teaches and conducts research at the University of Utah, found in his studies that creativity increases after three days spent in natural settings and his subjects improved in cognitive testing.

She takes several nature trips with different groups of people. The first group of veterans tackles the obstacles and hardships of nature easily, while the second group of women who have faced abuse in the past have a harder time dealing with nature’s struggles. Williams also takes a trip in Utah with her city friend, who writes about the benefits of city living.

Williams clearly sees the benefits of nature, but the 3-day effect may not have the same impact on everyone. The veterans took to the hikes and time in nature as a way to get some peace from the PTSD they normally experience at home with their friends, family, and others. The second group of women needed a bit of modification to see the benefits of nature, as they lived in fear for many years, reinforcing those fears in the elements was not the best option. One women who had been homeless and lived outside expressed serious concerns about camping outside where wild animals would be. Williams’ friend struggled with some of the hiking and was less than convinced that the effort to reach summits was worth it.

The 3-Day Effect by Florence Williams offers some scientific data and testing, but I wouldn’t call this a scientific study as there are no control groups for comparison and many of the data sets are too small. I also wouldn’t recommend this to people who are likely to take these anecdotal experiences and drop their medications and treatments on a whim without medical advice from a professional. I did find the book interesting to listen to and see how people reacted on the hiking trail and sleeping in nature, as well as how they felt afterward and what effects the stint in nature had on their productivity and real life.

RATING: Tercet

As One Fire Consumes Another by John Sibley Williams

Source: the poet
Paperback, 86 pgs.
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As One Fire Consumes Another by John Sibley Williams, winner of the 2018 Orison Poetry Prize, reminds readers that beneath the ash there is enough to rebuild life. Amidst the darkness present in a society tearing itself apart, there are flashes of hope within the flames. Even the cover with its words made of matchsticks is a prime example of the fuel that sets this book afire.

Sundogs (pg. 9)
            For Charlottesville

This isn't how I'm told halos work. 
Two mock suns lighting up the low
horizon, as if competing for grace-
giving, as if at war with each other.
The borders of their brief bodies
converging in one great arc flanking
then eclipsing the real. An imagined
architecture of virtue. A pure white
history. Torchlight flickers & feasts,
flickers & feasts, flickers & feasts. 
Whatever we think they stand for,
the old gods are toppling.

Williams’ words leap off the page just as many of the tragic events in our recent history have from the deaths of immigrant detainees to white power rallies. His collection seeks to tackle some of the biggest fractures in our nation, calling attention to the destruction of our country’s ideals and dreams. “You must have arrived here by/belief, too, searching for something/you could mistake for a life,” says the narrator of “the Detainee Is Granted One Wish.” (pg. 20) It only takes the flick of a match to set it all aflame. The country may seem large and strong, but these poems remind us that it can topple as easily as a house made of matchsticks.

In “No Island Is an Island, & So Forth” (pg. 26), Williams’ narrator reminds us that we cannot cast stones or pass judgment on others without first looking at our own history, our own lives. “When/writing your obituary, make sure to/leave some space for grandfather’s/casual racism.” The poem points to the follies of humanity and its obsession with want. The narrator asks that we look beyond our desires and see how the “want” devastates the world around us and look to be someone better.

As One Fire Consumes Another by John Sibley Williams is a collection that will consume you in fire — a passionate call for change. “My children are learning all wars/begin with belief.” (“Everests,” pg. 38) Let’s break the chain, let’s be better.

RATING: Cinquain

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About the Poet:

John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. He has also served as editor of two Northwest poetry anthologies, Alive at the Center (Ooligan Press, 2013) and Motionless from the Iron Bridge (barebones books, 2013). A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Laux/Millar Prize, Wabash Prize, Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, The 46er Prize, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Vallum Award for Poetry. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a teacher and literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Colorado Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, and various anthologies.