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I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons by Kevin Hart and Neil Strauss (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 11+ hrs
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I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons by Kevin Hart and Neil Strauss is a look back at the hard road of comedy and the bumpy road to stardom, but it is also explores Hart’s own life and how it impacted his future career and family. Hart pulls no punches in this one and lays everything bare, including his problems with alcohol, domestic abuse, and more.

Growing up near Philadelphia was hard, especially with a strict single mother and a father who was addicted to drugs and hardly ever home. His stories about his family are outrageous to say the least, and Hart will say that he couldn’t have made them up if he tried.

Throughout the book he offers advice he received from other comics on the scene in Philly, New York, and LA. But he also offers lessons from his own life. One takeaway that really resonated with me is that even though his mother forced them to take public transportation even when they had another option, trained him for his rigorous show schedule and the waiting on TV and movie sets that can be not only frustrating but tedious. His mother’s tenacity also inspired him to keep striving for his goals, as he faced empty bank accounts and non-paying venues.

Hart is funny throughout the audio, which he narrates, but there are moments of crassness early on when he talks frankly about becoming an adolescent boy and later in life when he’s in Hollywood. These are part of his story, and if you don’t like profanity or detailed information about sex, you may want to skip this one or those parts.

I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons by Kevin Hart and Neil Strauss was wildly entertaining, funny, and enlightening. I learned a great deal about where my own determination and drive comes from by Hart reminding me of those restrictive days as a kid in my parents’ home. I can now see how those restrictions helped me become the disciplined person I am. Hart’s still on a journey, but his journey is now aimed at improving the lives of his children, encouraging him in the way his mother did, and ensuring they don’t think they can skip school and do the things that he did. There were many laugh out loud moments, but there are lessons that you won’t soon forget.

RATING: Cinquain

Fables by Arnold Lobel

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 48 pgs.
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Fables by Arnold Lobel includes beautiful illustrations with one-page fables, some of which still apply today. There are a few fables that could use better messages for kids, which is why parents should carefully choose which fables to read their children. This book is a bit challenging to read for my daughter, but we’ve talked about each fable and parsed the story to find the meaning of each tale.

One of our favorites was the “The Poor Old Dog,” who has no home and a worn coat and shoes until one day he finds what he thinks is a magic ring. In this story, readers learn that wishes may not always come true immediately after making them and that patience is key in making wishes, as well as ensuring they come true. “The Ostrich in Love” is a tale my daughter thought was odd because the Ostrich never talks to the girl he loves, but he does all of these nice things for her. “Love is its own reward,” the tale says, but my daughter is not convinced — she’s still young yet.

“The Hen and the Apple Tree” is a tale with a wolf naturally and an inquisitive and skeptical hen — and well she should be. My daughter liked this one, even when we discussed how hard it is to be something we are not. Another favorite was “The Hippopotamus at Dinner,” which is appropriate considering this is the holiday season in which we all tend to overindulge a bit.

Fables by Arnold Lobel provides some unique stories for kids to read together or to have read to them. The illustrations are colorful and realistic, which makes the tales all the more real for kids. While some of the lessons are outdated and could be updated a bit for kids of the modern era, parents can take that extra time to explain those stories to children in a way that makes more sense.

RATING: Tercet

Vacation Under the Volcano by Mary Pope Osborne

Source: Gift
Paperback, 74 pgs.
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Vacation Under the Volcano by Mary Pope Osborne, a second book in this series gifted by my aunt to my daughter, finds Jack and Annie in Pompeii. This is not the time to be in the popular vacation city, but our kids don’t know it until it might be too late.

On a mission from Morgan La Fey, Jack and Annie are on the hunt for a story scroll. Where could the library be that has the scroll they need. They run into Gladiators, soldiers, shop owners, and a soothsayer. My daughter learned so much from this little book, and I was amazed that she could remember how to say “Mount Vesuvius” and “Pompeii” pretty quickly.

Vacation Under the Volcano by Mary Pope Osborne offers kids pronunciation keys to help with difficult or unknown words, and this story has a great deal of tension. It also offers some cliffhangers, which my daughter has learned about in school. She really enjoyed this book and couldn’t wait to finish it.

RATING: Cinquain

Tigers at Twilight by Mary Pope Osborne

Source: Gift
Paperback, 72 pgs.
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Tigers at Twilight by Mary Pope Osborne is one of a bunch of books my aunt sent my daughter over the summer. It is book 19 in the series, but kids can follow along pretty well reading them out of order. Personally, this would drive me crazy not reading them in order, but my daughter is not bothered.

Jack and Annie are siblings who have adventures in a magic tree house. In this book, the kids are sent to India in search of a gift to free Teddy the dog from his furry state. Using a nonfiction book as their guide, they meet langurs, elephants, a hermit, and a tiger. There is danger, fun, and a bit of fear that they won’t uncover the gift or find their way home.

My daughter took to this book instantly, and part of it is the mix of fiction and nonfiction. She likes to learn about the natural world while reading fiction and this has both. Tigers at Twilight by Mary Pope Osborne was a good adventure story that’s not too scary, but packs in enough information about a real place to help kids learn about the world.

RATING: Quatrain

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

Wallace and Grace Take the Case by Heather Alexander and Laura Zarrin

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Wallace and Grace Take the Case by Heather Alexander and Laura Zarrin is the second book in the series of early chapter books for young readers. Wallace and Grace are the best of friends. Wallace loves facts and often takes notes in his notebook when they are working on unraveling a mystery, while Grace loves to puzzle things out based on those facts. In this case, Edgar, the rabbit, says there is a ghost preventing him from eating the kale in his garden.

My daughter likes this series of mysteries, which are not overly complicated, but do get her thinking about things differently and deductively. One complaint she had was that Grace likes to use big words like courageous, which she finds difficult to pronounce. This may be the case now, but as she grows as a reader I hope that complaint will disappear. Regardless, this does not detract from her enjoyment in reading these aloud at bedtime, and she’s told me she wants to go to the bookstore to buy the series. (I think there are only 3 at present)

Wallace and Grace Take the Case by Heather Alexander and Laura Zarrin is a delightful mystery series with my daughter’s favorite kind of character — animals with personalities. She enjoys reading these at bedtime, and sometimes doesn’t want to stop at just one chapter because she knows she’s close to finding out what the mystery is.

RATING: Quatrain

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

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

Sunset Beach by Mary Kay Andrews

Source: St. Martin’s Press
Paperback, 448 pgs.
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Sunset Beach by Mary Kay Andrews is slightly different from the lighter side of her other novels. Drue Campbell’s life is turned upside down with the death of her mother, the reappearance of her estranged father, an accident that takes away the one thing that eases her mind, and the loss of her job — a job she hated. Campbell hasn’t had an idyllic life, but with her mother she was at least grounded. Now, she’s adrift and wary of accepting her father’s help, especially after being estranged for so long.

When she arrives in St. Petersburg, Florida, she is given her inheritance from her father – her grandparents’ cottage on Sunset beach. But the gift is not without its own headaches — a leaky roof, nasty color scheme, and so much more. While clearing out the trash from the previous hoarder tenant and cleaning up the cottage, Drue uncovers a mystery in her own attic. When she heads to the office to work for her father, she also discovers his new wife is her former best friend and there’s a mystery at the law office that needs a second look.

Sunset Beach by Mary Kay Andrews is a complex read of a young woman finding her place in the world after losing so much, but it’s also chock full of murder mysteries that Drue Campbell and you can’t help but dig into.

RATING: Quatrain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Mary Kay Andrews graduated from the University of Georgia with a journalism degree in 1976.  She worked as a reporter at a number of papers, and spent 11 years as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before leaving to write fiction full-time in 1991.  She published ten mystery novels under her own name between 1992 and 2000, and since 2002, she has authored a number of best-selling books as Mary Kay Andrews.

Owl Diaries: Eva and Baby Mo by Rebecca Elliott (book 10)

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Owl Diaries: Eva and Baby Mo (book #10) by Rebecca Elliott is the 10th book in this series of Branches Books from Scholastic and a favorite series of my daughter. Eva is one curious owl and she’s kindhearted. When she learns about hobbies at her elementary school and she and her classmates are charged with sharing their own hobbies, she realizes that she doesn’t think her parents have hobbies at all. Eva soon learns that her parents once has a dazzling hobby, but with their growing family, they have had little time for it.

My daughter has loved this series since the beginning, and she now is able to read most of these books on her own, which is a delight to hear. She loves reading about Eva and her friends, as well as their plans and projects. In this book, Eva and her friends devise a way for her parents to rediscover their hobby. They offer to babysit Mo. They do not know how hard it will be.

Owl Diaries: Eva and Baby Mo (book #10) by Rebecca Elliott is a delightful book about how sometimes things look easier than they are in actuality. Eva and her friends learn how hard babysitting can be, but they also realize how fun it can be.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

A school project from when Rebecca was 6 reads, ‘when I grow up I want to be an artist and a writer’. After a brief detour from this career plan involving a degree in philosophy and a dull office job she fulfilled her plan in 2001 when she became a full time children’s book illustrator and has since written and illustrated hundreds of picture books published worldwide including the award-winning Just Because, Zoo Girl, Naked Trevor, Mr Super Poopy Pants, Missing Jack and the very popular Owl Diaries series.

She lives in Suffolk in the United Kingdom with her husband, a history teacher and children, all professional monkeys.

Owl Diaries: Eva’s Big Sleepover by Rebecca Elliott (book 9)

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Owl Diaries: Eva’s Big Sleepover (book #9) by Rebecca Elliott is the ninth installment in the branches book series and Eva is eager for her birthday sleepover to celebrate her Hatch Day. She wants to invite her class, but Sue is not a particularly nice owl all of the time and Eva is reluctant to invite her. Eventually, she does.

Eva learns that you shouldn’t be mean to someone just because they are not nice to you. She also learns that someone could be simply in a bad mood and unaware of how that mood affects how they treat others. Elliott weaves in these lessons skillfully for children, and with the colorful illustrations, it’s hard not to love this series of books.

I am astounded by Eva’s mom’s bravery in allowing Eva to invite her entire class or a sleepover. I’m not sure that I would be that brave.

Owl Diaries: Eva’s Big Sleepover (book #9) by Rebecca Elliott is another solid read in this series. My daughter has grown as a reader with these books, and she loves Eva’s creativity and kindhearted nature. I’ll probably be sad when she no longer wants to read them together.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

A school project from when Rebecca was 6 reads, ‘when I grow up I want to be an artist and a writer’. After a brief detour from this career plan involving a degree in philosophy and a dull office job she fulfilled her plan in 2001 when she became a full time children’s book illustrator and has since written and illustrated hundreds of picture books published worldwide including the award-winning Just Because, Zoo Girl, Naked Trevor, Mr Super Poopy Pants, Missing Jack and the very popular Owl Diaries series.

She lives in Suffolk in the United Kingdom with her husband, a history teacher and children, all professional monkeys.

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