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Afterland by Mai Der Vang

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 96 pgs.
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Afterland by Mai Der Vang, whom I was lucky enough to hear read at a virtual event for Pedestal Magazine, explores the after effects of the Secret War in Laos, during which the Hmong people became a surrogate army of the CIA. The war and its effort to disrupt traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail caused the significant displacement of numerous villagers over a nine year period. Der Vang opens her collection with “Another Heaven,” which sets the stage for her song of the Hmong people: “When funeral recites/The supper gardens of my forefathers,/Cross-stitch from my mother kin,// Then I will come to you/” Der Vang is stepping into the shoes of the Hmong, trying to make sense of a secret war and its consequences.

This initial poem sets the tone for the entire collection, an ethereal, out-of-body reminiscence of a people displaced from their homeland and they must learn to rebuild and grow again. “It’s when the banyan must leave/Relearn to cathedral its roots//” (“Dear Exile, pg. 22) Der Vang’s vision of the world will have readers imaging a world through new eyes. How do you regrow your roots in a new land? Readers will step inside the imagined journey and emotional roller coaster of being displaced. What is this “afterland” — is it a return to the old ways in a new country, the return to an old country, or the adoption of a new country and new ways?

One of my favorites in the collection is “Cipher Song”:

It's come to this. We hide the stories
on our sleeves, patchwork of cotton veins.

Scribe them on carriers for sleeping
babies, weave our ballads to the sash.

Forge paper from our aprons, and our
bodies will be books. Learn the language

of jackets: the way a pleat commands
a line, the way collars unfold as page,

sign our names in thread. The footprint
of an elephant. Snail's shell. Ram's horn.

When the words burn, all that's left is ash.

The poem reminds me of the family stories that are sometimes hidden because relatives aren’t asked or they are unwilling to share them, especially if they are painful. I recalled a time when my grandfather told us tales of the “old country” when he was willing to speak about WWII, but peppering him with questions would shut his mouth and the stories would stop. Der Vang is an archeologist bringing the Hmong back into the light, breathing life into their stories, like the “Phantom Talker” “with creosote mouth//hiding behind/your silent head/in the vermilion portrait.//”

Afterland by Mai Der Vang is full of haunted lines and ghosts, and her poems are beautiful like “a cello slinks/From every strand.//Vineyards ribbon/Inside the intimate air.” (To the Longhorn Hmong, pg. 59) Der Vang circles back to her own ancestral history in the penultimate, title poem. Readers get the sense they are coming full circle.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Mai Der Vang is an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle. Her poetry has appeared in the New Republic, Poetry, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, and her essays have been published in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post. Her debut collection, Afterland, received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. She lives in California.

The Haunted Library: The Secret Room by Dori Hillestad Butler, Illustrated by Aurore Damant

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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The Haunted Library: The Secret Room by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Aurore Damant, is another adventure in which Kaz must use his newly learned ghost skills to help Claire and his friends. Kaz finally learned how to pass through walls without feeling “skizzy” in the last book, but he’s still reluctant to use his skill, until his little brother “Little John” goads him into it. But now he has a new mystery on his hands in Beckett’s secret room inside the library.

There are a bunch of ghostly objects that don’t shrink when Kaz and his friends hold them while shrinking, and they are dying to know why. They also discover a secret envelop that they want to show Claire, but can’t because it won’t pass through the wall. Meanwhile, Claire goes on a class trip and learns a bit of history about the library before it was a library, as well as some family secrets.

My daughter loves this series of books from the mysteries to the funny antics of Kaz, Claire, and now his little brother and his dog. I’m not going to spoil any of the secrets in this one. The Haunted Library: The Secret Room by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Aurore Damant, is a fun ride and will keep you guessing.

RATING: Cinquain

Owl Diaries: Eva in the Spotlight by Rebecca Elliott

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Owl Diaries: Eva in the Spotlight by Rebecca Elliott, which is the 13th book in the series, and thrusts Eva into a new friendship role once again. Eva and Sue tend to clash on things, and when Sue is cast as the lead in Treetop Owlementary’s new play, Snowy White, Eva is disappointed. But she is cast as the mirror and as Sue’s understudy (which was a new word for my daughter to learn) and she gets to help with making costumes.

Eva’s a creative little owl, but she gets disappointed and jealous like other kids. She even finds that telling a white lie to her grandmother weighs heavily on her, but she learns that telling the truth doesn’t mean that her grandmother will love her less. Her grandmother assures her that she’ll love her even if she’s the mirror and not the lead role.

My daughter really loves this series and while most of it is graphics/illustrations and diary entries, she really feels like Eva is a close friend and she gets to see what Eva is thinking and feeling. This is the kind of book that can help kids learn how to process their emotions. There are some words she has a tough time sounding out, but she eventually gets them down pat, as some of those harder words are repeated throughout the book. Teachers could use this series to teach kids larger compound words in a context.

Owl Diaries: Eva in the Spotlight by Rebecca Elliott is another stellar edition to the series, and my daughter will likely continue reading this one. It’s easier for her to read and it’s a good in-between book when I have her read more on-grade-level books in the evenings. This series has been a real winner.

RATING: Quatrain

Other reviews of this series.

How to Spot an Artist by Danielle Krysa

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 40 pgs.
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How to Spot an Artist by Danielle Krysa hadn’t even been out of the package more than 10 minutes when my daughter snapped it up to read on her own after her first day of class. She is an artist, but sometimes she is not confident in what she chooses to create. In some cases, she creates something that is temporary and can be discard or transformed into something else. This is part of her process, I think, and I try not to interfere even if I want to keep her art permanently — this is where my phone camera comes in handy.

Krysa has created a book that artists and those who are just starting to get interested in art will love. It tells children that there are artists everywhere and that there a number of art jobs available for those who decide to make art their career. My daughter’s favorite part of the book is when it is interrupted for an important message about art bullies or as my daughter called the image on the page “the art blob.”

How to Spot an Artist by Danielle Krysa is a delightful read about being yourself and how art can turn into not only a career but also a lifelong passion. The goal of this book is to inspire kids to just create no matter what it looks like. The pictures are colorful and engaging, and the page on glitter is fantastic and so true. We really enjoyed this one.

RATING: Cinquain

When Mary Met the Colonel by Victoria Kincaid (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 2+ hours
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When Mary Met the Colonel by Victoria Kincaid, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman, is a delightful novella with a meet-cute between Mary Bennet and Colonel Fitzwilliam at the wedding breakfast of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy at Longbourn. Mary is considered the religious one, but what if there was a bit of rebel in her too? Perhaps she’s more like Elizabeth than anyone suspects — she does do quite a bit of reading.

Zimmerman is always a delightful narrator and her inflections are fantastic. She makes the perfect match here as Mary’s voice, but even the men are narrated well. I expect nothing less.

Kincaid’s novella is short and sweet, and sadly that was the one drawback for me. I wanted to see more of them together and apart. I wanted more of the colonel in the battle scenes and more of his military mind explored on the battlefield. However, I did love the bits of impropriety here and thought that they worked out well. But once the cat is out of the bag, I suppose I expected a bit more “proper” response from Elizabeth and Darcy, but perhaps marriage has softened them.

Mary Bennet is full of surprises, and like her elder sister has a sharp mind and a bit of mischief in her. I was delighted to see a better side of Mary in this novella, and I loved that the Colonel could appreciate her. Their story is short and sweet, but there is no lack of tension when a lord comes to call at Matlock House and disrupts the whole will-they, won’t-they drama. This is the moment where having more would have helped the story line. I wanted to see how this Lord had become interested in Mary and what their interactions were like so when he arrives, I’m less surprised and confused by his sudden ardor.

When Mary Met the Colonel by Victoria Kincaid, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman, is a satisfying story for a young lady too often left in the background, but here, she is center stage and shines brightly, especially when she gets her happily ever after.

RATING Quatrain

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The Institute by Stephen King (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 18+ hrs.
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The Institute by Stephen King, narrated by Santino Fontana, is a really long listen and probably would have went much faster if I had read the print book or ebook, but the audio was enjoyable. Tim Jamieson is a young man on the road, seemingly aimlessly wandering after something tragic happened. He lands in DuPrey, South Carolina, as a night knocker. But his story is put on pause once he gets there and starts talking with the police department and settling into his life. (He’s clearly a plot device)

Shifting the story to the trail to The Institute, we’re introduced to genius boy, Luke Ellis. He is the latest child taken to The Institute, which has a room that looks just like Luke’s, except there is no window. Luke is unclear what has happened and why. He begins wandering the sterile halls where he sees kids like him but who smoke cigarettes and behaving oddly. He vaguely realizes he’s been kidnapped and begins to puzzle out what has happened and what is going on in The Institute. His high intelligence enables him to determine what is going on, but when Avery Dixon comes on the scene, the ball game changes and the scales tip in favor of the kids — the kids with telekinesis and telepathy.

Luke makes friends with those kids in Front Half — Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. But like those before them, they will “graduate” to Back Half where the real work begins. From the sinister Mrs. Sigsby to Trevor Stackhouse, there are men and women pulling the strings of the institute, but there is clearly a larger organization or group of people behind the scenes. Kids are punished and given tokens when they’re good — tokens they can be used for candy, food, cigarettes, and alcohol.

The Institute by Stephen King, narrated by Santino Fontana, is part dig at Trump and the administration and the wide reaching conspiracy theories that have been bandied about for decades about secret government groups controlling the world. The only twist is that King leans on previous work like the clairvoyance and the need to save the future in The Dead Zone and other work. This one seemed too long in places and in need of editing. I think the political commentary about the current administration, though it isn’t much in the greater scheme of things (though some can draw parallels if they look hard enough), could be grating to some looking for an escape.

RATING: Tercet

About the Author:

Stephen King is the author of more than fifty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes Doctor Sleep and Under the Dome, now a major TV miniseries on CBS. His novel 11/22/63 was named a top ten book of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller as well as the Best Hardcover Book Award from the International Thriller Writers Association. He is the recipient of the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

Other reviews can be found here.

My Name Is Immigrant by Wang Ping

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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My Name Is Immigrant by Wang Ping is a collection of immigrant stories and songs of hardship and perseverance in a countries that welcome immigrants so long as they can be used and serve a purpose. Ping’s tales in some cases are like odes to immigrants who lost their lives pursuing their dreams or who were forced to give them up and return to their home countries. Her poems express a range of emotions that immigrants feel from anger and disappointment to shame and sometimes hope. There also are ghosts haunting these pages.

“All we want is a life like others/…Now the tide is rising to our necks/” (from “Cockle Pickers: Xu Yuhua, Liu Qinying)

In “How to Cross the Line,” Ping’s depiction of a border crossing runs readers through a litany of emotions. The patting of pockets as the immigrant approaches customs, the absence of luggage, and the deliberate choice to forgo identification — signaling that their past and their name are no longer theirs. The cry for asylum — a cry of many facing gangs, violence, poverty — is an echo throughout the collection. It is a cry for not only shelter from outside forces and fear, but also a cry for a chance to help themselves achieve their own dreams.

From Calling Ghosts from the Golden Venture (pg. 38-43)

and here we are
hovering around this New Jersey cemetery
our bodies gone
but our souls still hanging
like curtains soaked in rain
our summer clothes so thin!
so thin our dream!

How beautiful and harrowing language can be. These ghosts from a cargo ship bringing labor to America from China, who hang around waiting for their dream to be realized — a dream that died with them. The thinness of the dream — slipped from their grasp. It’s devastating. Ping provides some background stories for these poems, but even without them, these immigrant stories live and breathe. In “The Names You Call Me,” Ping calls out the hypocrisy of the names that immigrants are called, especially by those who actually embody those names. Throughout this poem, she refutes these names and descriptions and she rages against them in the only way she knows — through poetry. “I’m your parents on the road … your children in cages … named or nameless …I’m Truth that defies your lies … I’m Conscience that jolts you awake in a cold sweat … I’m Poetry that sails hope across the sea and desert.” (pg. 68) And from “Immigrant can’t write poetry,” “poetry, born as beast/move best when free, undressed//” (pg. 73)

My Name Is Immigrant by Wang Ping haunts, sings, rages, and breathes. It is more than a collection of immigrant stories and struggles, it is a homage to their lives and it is a commentary on the nation that claims to be the land of the free and the place where dreams can come true for all who enter and live here.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Wang Ping was born in Shanghai and grew up in the East China Sea. Loves the body of water, its sound and smell, loves the touch of the muddy beach and golden sand.

Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 224 pgs.
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Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey is an emotional roller coaster that I read in a couple of days. I’ve read much of Trethewey’s poetry in the past, so I was aware that her memoir would be well written. Growing up the daughter of a white father and a Black mother in the south was hard for her parents, but for the most part, they tried to shelter her from the darkness of bigotry and the still segregated south (Yes, the laws had changed, but attitudes and operations definitely had not). But this memoir is not about the fight for equality so much as a mystery slowly unraveled by Trethewey herself. She’s avoided parts of her past surrounding the murder of her mother by her stepfather. In many ways, the memoir reads like an intimate look at her own unraveling of the past and a stitching of herself into a whole being after splicing herself into the girl she was before she saw the apartment where her mother was slain and the woman she became afterward.

“‘Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?'” (Prologue)

“I chose to mark the calendar year just after my mother and I left Mississippi as ending, and the moment of loss — her death — as beginning.” (pg. 51)

Trethewey will take readers on a very emotional journey, and I rarely cry at memoirs. This was a tough read from beginning to end, as Trethewey came to terms with her biracial heritage, the divorce of her parents, and the fateful entrance of her stepfather. When she and her mother move to Atlanta, founded as “Terminus” or the end of the line, their perspectives on the move are very different. A child missing her close-knit family life in Mississippi and her mother reaching for a new life. When Big Joe comes into their lives, there’s an immediate sense of dread and fear as he takes her on long rides on the 285 as punishment (mostly for things she didn’t do). But Trethewey still blames her silence for what happened to her mother, even if it is less pronounced than it must have been years ago. Silence is a conundrum for her. “…I can’t help asking myself whether her death was the price of my inexplicable silence.” (pg. 83) When she returns to Atlanta after fleeing the place, she avoids the past and takes any roads that are not 285.

“The truth, however, was waiting for me in my body and on the map I consulted to navigate my way around: how the outline of 285 bears the shape of an anatomical heart imprinted on the landscape, a wound where Memorial intersects it.” (pg. 86)

Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey is a gripping tale of healing and reconciling the past. Trethewey relies not only on her memory but on her mother’s own writing, testimony, and recorded phone conversations. I was emotionally wrecked by this memoir. The love she had as a child from both her parents provided her with the strong foundation she needed to revisit this tragic part of her past and to heal herself (at least I’m hopeful that she’s healing).

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Natasha Trethewey is an American poet who was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 2012 and again in 2013. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her 2006 collection Native Guard, and she is a former Poet Laureate of Mississippi.

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The Migrant States by Indran Amirthanayagam

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 96 pgs.
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The Migrant States by Indran Amirthanayagam is part homage to Walt Whitman and homage to the globetrotter seeking a home in any state or country they land in. Whitman was often fond of wandering by foot, and like many other globetrotters or travelers of today who use planes and other means of travel, the happenstance of meeting others on the road was a call to which they heed. Born in Ceylon, a country Amirthanayagam says no longer exists (it is now Sri Lanka), it is clear that Whitman’s journeys spoke to him and helped him hear the muse for these Migrant states. The reader travels with the poet to Texas, Florida, Lima, and many more states, like Whitman in “Starting from Paumanok.”

In the opening poem, “Mind Breathing,” Amirthanayagam says, “I bear witness to these losses//here as my own attempts to speak, in breaths,/shall infuse a poem able still to coagulate, distill,/strain a few thousand disparate disappearances into verse.//” The reader knows that the poet plans to take us on a journey not only to different geographies but to different states of mind/emotion to ensure that these disappearing migrant states live on and breath. Whitman is always with us on the journey, as he’s recalled by the poet and spoken to about the way things have deteriorated environmentally (plastics in the rivers) in “Ode to and from Whitman.”

Through Amirthanayagam’s journey from punk rocker where he built nothing with a band that only wanted to cover other people’s songs to a “holy” man creating a world of poetry in “When I Left Punk and Took Holy Orders,” readers see that like us, he bucked the system, fought against an establishment. Poetry has a rebellious quality to it even as it is quiet and observing. Many of these poems are quietly rebellious in nature, with just one look at “Written in Advance” (my favorite poem in the collection) recalling the vans that take innocents away for expressing themselves and leaving a poem with editors across the land to tell the true tale.

The Migrant States by Indran Amirthanayagam is a journey into a community that is not housed in one place — it spans the whole of the human race. The poet understands that to commune with others, one must be part of the world, observe, and express the truths that are hardest to hear. To change the world, we must be in it. Engage with it. Mingle with others. Learn together and grow before time is up.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Poet, essayist, and translator Indran Amirthanayagam was born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He was raised in Sri Lanka, London, and Honolulu. Amirthanayagam has authored numerous poetry collections, including The Elephants of Reckoning (1993), Ceylon, R.I.P. (2001), The Splintered Face (2008), Uncivil War (2013), and Coconuts On Mars (2019). He writes, translates, and publishes poetry and essays in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole.

Pounce! a How to Speak Cat Training Guide

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Paperback, 176 pgs.
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Pounce! a How to Speak Cat Training Guide by Dr. Gary Weitzman and Tracey West is a comprehensive look at cat behavior, full magazine-quality images, and so much more. Kids ages 8 and up can learn not only how to gauge when a cat is anxious or angry, but they can also learn about what it means when cats purr. There’s even a quiz about cats that kids can do to learn not only about their diets but also whether cats do have nine lives. Cats can be trained, which is true if you think about how they have to be trained to use a litter box — why wouldn’t you be able to train them to do other things?

We don’t own a cat, but my daughter’s best buddy in the neighborhood has several and she loves playing with them (when we’re not in a pandemic). I think this book would help her friend learn more about cat behavior and how to recognize when the cats have had enough. Beyond training cats to use the litter box and putting on a color, kids and parents can learn to train their cats to come when called, go into a carrier for the vet visit, and using a cat door, as well has how to play with a ball. We learned that much like dogs, cats can be trained to sit, stay, and beg, as well as shake paws.

There are even tips to help with destructive behavior and so much more. Pounce! a How to Speak Cat Training Guide by Dr. Gary Weitzman and Tracey West demonstrates that many animals can be taught tricks. Cats are likely candidates, and kids can be kept safer by learning how to read cat behavior.

RATING: Quatrain

Fetch! A How to Speak Dog Training Guide

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Paperback, 176 pgs.
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Fetch! A How to Speak Dog Training Guide by Dr. Gary Weitzman and Aubre Andrus is another fact-filled guide from National Geographic Kids for kids ages 8 and up. The book provides practical guidance on how to train a dog to sit, stay, and so much more. Our dog already knows some tricks, so our daughter wants to work with her on the harder activities and I’m hoping to train her how to catch a Frisbee. Our live-in dog, who belongs to my parents, has zero tricks. My first trick will be to teach him how to hush. He barks way too much for my liking. Wish me luck, since he’s a notoriously stubborn dog.

There are activities like ringing a bell, jumping through a hoop, and so much more. Maybe we’ll train these dogs for the circus? Not likely, but it will be a good idea for her to try and train her own dog and learn how to be responsible for her pets. The book has some vivid color images of different dogs, which was another fun topic of conversation. She’ll know more about different dog breeds than I did as a kid.

Inside, kids can learn not only how to train their own dogs, but learn from other dog owners who’ve tried to train their own pooches. There are other fun activities for kids to where they can make their own dog toys or learn what type of dog they are. My daughter was happy to learn that she’s at least part Siberian Husky like her own dog. There are even vet tips and information on how to read your dog’s body language. The back of the book also offers resources for further information.

Fetch! A How to Speak Dog Training Guide by Dr. Gary Weitzman and Aubre Andrus provides a lot of activities for kids to learn how to interact with their dog and teach them good behaviors, but it also can become an interactive activity for dogs to enjoy — especially since many of the tricks require rewards in treats.

RATING: Quatrain

Diary of a Pug: Paws for a Cause by Kyla May

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 72 pgs.
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Diary of a Pug: Paws for a Cause by Kyla May is the third book in this delightful diary series for first and second graders. My daughter loves this series, which is why we keep reading them, and any practice she can get is fine by me. In this installment, Baron von Bubbles and Bella discover a lost kitten and they are only able to take care of him for the evening before Bella’s mom tells her she has to bring him to the animal shelter. When they drop off the kitty reality hits hard for both Bella and Bub. They soon realize that animal shelters have money for food and little else to keep these soon-to-be-adopted pets happy. Bella and Bub decide it’s time to help.

What we love about this series is that these characters have big hearts and big ideas. Maybe the first try doesn’t always work successfully, but they continue to try harder and make some headway. They take a step back, reassess, and begin again. Some times they have a little help and a little inspiration from others. But through perseverance, they’re able to find a solution and reach the goal they set out for themselves.

Diary of a Pug: Paws for a Cause by Kyla May has some great illustrations, characters, and thought bubbles. Don’t forget the thought bubbles that show how Bub is truly feeling about a situation. The final page always has some great questions to get the kids thinking about what they just read as well as how they would react in certain situations. It’s a great way for parents and kids to engage with the text and have a conversation.

RATING Quatrain

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