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Olivia Otter Builds Her Raft by Dara Kass and Jessica Piazza, illustrated by Abe Tensia

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 32 pgs.
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Olivia Otter Builds Her Raft by Dara Kass and Jessica Piazza, illustrated by Abe Tensia, is a delightfully illustrated picture book that teaches younger kids about what it means to work with others and craft a reliable family net they can rely on. The colorful watercolor paintings – that’s exactly what they look like — compel younger readers to think about water movement and the life of an otter in its natural environment. Olivia Otter is swept up in a storm stronger than the ones she’s experienced before and she has nothing to hold on to, but she knows she’s a strong swimmer and a survivor. Olivia misses her mom and her family, but their memories are still with her.

Kids will easily read this book after some practice as Kass and Piazza have chosen words that young kids are already familiar with. My daughter and I loved that Olivia wanted to build her own raft of otters. Slowly over time she does just that, and these otters know that they can count on each other. When her small group stumbles upon a larger group of otters, it’s time to choose to live with more otters or be in their small group. Kids will learn what it means to be part of a larger society in this book — how to share and care for others who are not blood relatives, but are their family nonetheless.

Olivia Otter Builds Her Raft by Dara Kass and Jessica Piazza, illustrated by Abe Tensia, is a delightful picture book about survival and what family actually means. It will also teach children that no matter their gender, they’re equally capable of great things. Ultimately, I hope that my daughter and other young kids who read this book will learn to build their own rafts, expanding their family wide enough to support them no matter where they are in the future.

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

About the Authors:

Jessica Piazza is the author of two full-length poetry collections from Red Hen Press: “Interrobang” (2013) and, with Heather Aimee O’Neill, “Obliterations” (forthcoming, 2015) as well as the chapbook “This is not a sky” (Black Lawrence Press, 2014). Originally from Brooklyn, NY, she holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English Literature from the University of Southern California, a Master’s degree in English/Creative Writing from the University of Texas at Austin and a B.S. in Journalism from Boston University. She is co-founder of Gold Line Press and Bat City Review and a contributing editor at The Offending Adam. Her poetry has appeared in Agni, Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, Rattle, No Tell Motel, 32 Poems, Forklift, Ohio, National Poetry Review, Pebble Lake Review, Anti- and 42 Opus, among other places.

Dara Kass, MD is the founder of FemInEM. An emergency medicine physician and advocate for the advancement of women in medicine, she is passionate about creating a community where women in EM can act as champions for one another. She is a graduate of SUNY Downstate Medical School and Kings County Hospital’s residency program.

Abe Tensia was born in Wyoming and spent most of her childhood as an indoor kid/reluctant car camper.  After relocating to Maine to attend Bowdoin College, she realized that nature were pretty cool after all and began sharing her favorite bits through pen and ink drawings.  Her work celebrates creative play and the natural wonder and whimsy of the great outdoors, both things near and dear to her own heart.

Wild Blues by Beth Kephart, illustrations by William Sulit

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 336 pgs.
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I think Beth Kephart is the most reviewed author on my blog. And you will probably understand why when you realize that many of her books are like prose poems that tell stories with big themes and complex and colorful characters. She is one of my favorite authors, and I especially love that her husband is illustrating some of her more recent books.


Wild Blues by Beth Kephart, with illustrations from William Sulit, is as beautifully poetic as Kephart’s previous novels, but this one is suspense wrapped in the wilds of the Adirondacks. Taking inspiration from a prison break at the Clinton Correctional Facility and the family heirlooms — Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart — in her father’s home, Kephart has woven an inspirational tale of courage tugged from 13-year-old Lizzie’s connections with her family and dearest friend, Matias. This middle-grade novel will charge young readers to think about their own lives and whether their willing to go the distance to save their own family and friends.

“I don’t remember if I ran, but maybe I did. I don’t remember how my heart felt, except for the squirm of it, like it was riding a carousel inside my chest.” (pg. 96)

Using the victim impact statement as a story-telling device, Lizzie takes us on the road to recovering her missing Uncle Davy and her friend Matias, but to take the journey, she says we must first understand who they are. We’re given glimpses of life in Matias’ homeland of El Salvadore — the beauty and the violence — and in many ways Lizzie’s journey to save them is like stepping foot into those El Salvadorean jungles where fear takes hold and makes things larger than life, scarier than they may be … at least in the Adirondacks. William Sulit’s watercolor renderings from Matias are beautiful and add a sense of wonder to the story, providing us a glimpse of what his art could be.

“‘I heard it roar. The loudest commotion you ever heard. Like an old man snoring through a megaphone that had been slapped against my ear.'” (pg. 289-90)

I was swept up in this story of Lizzie, her famous antique finding Uncle Davy, and her artistic friend Matias. I loved that Lizzie wanted to be brave and to find her family but at the same time her limitations are realistic. The woods carry a mystical quality for our young biologist, especially since she’s as entranced by her friend Matias’ paintings as she is enchanted by the natural world. She holds tight to memories and her family, but she also holds tight to knowledge, including the knowledge in The Art of Keppy, a practical guide for woodland explorers. My only moment of confusion and pause came when a character (who really isn’t) appears as Lizzie tells us what happened to the escapees and how this “character” had been tricked. This sequence took me out of Lizzie’s story and I was disoriented for a moment. I’ve debated whether this was intentional or not, but regardless, I wanted back into Lizzie’s world … to know what happened.

Wild Blues by Beth Kephart, with illustrations from William Sulit, looks at the consequences of choice for the young protagonist, Lizzie. She chooses to leave her mother alone for the summer and be with her uncle in the woods and with her summer friend. She chooses to run after Matias when she learns he is missing, getting lost herself. When she returns home to find her uncle gone and police looking for escapees, she must make another choice and that choice can have the most dire of consequences. Would you have the same courage, touched with naivete? Does she make the right decisions? Many of these questions are not answered, but it would be a great book club discussion.

RATING: QUATRAIN

Other Books Reviewed:

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of twenty-two books, publishing memoir, young adult literature, a corporate fairytale, an autobiography of a river, and an essay/photography collection.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham), based in part on Kephart’s teaching at Penn (where she won the 2015 Beltran Teaching Award), won the 2013 Books for a Better Life Award (Motivational Category), was featured as a top writing book by O Magazine, and was named a Best Writing Book by Poets and Writers. Small Damages (Philomel) was named a 2013 Carolyn W. Field Honor Book and a best book of the year by many publications. Going Over (Chronicle) was the 2014 Parents’ Choice, Gold Medal Winner/Historical Fiction and a Booklist Editor’s Choice. One Thing Stolen (Chronicle) was a 2015 Parents’ Choice Gold Medal winner. Kephart’s 2014 Shebooks e-memoir is Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss One Wing at a Time. Her 2013 middle grade historical novel, Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent (Temple University Press), was named a top book of the year by Kirkus.

Kephart is a National Book Award nominee and a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize. She writes a monthly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune, has given keynote addresses on the state of literature and teaching, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards, the National Endowment for the Arts, and PEN. 

Kephart was one of 50 Philadelphia writers chosen for the year-long Philadelphia’s Literary Legacy, exhibited at the Philadelphia International Airport. Excerpts from her Love: A Philadelphia Affair were the subject of a six-month Airport exhibit. She is a Radnor High Hall of Fame.

Kephart’s most recent book—This Is the Story of You—was published by Chronicle and is a Junior Library Guild and Scholastic Book Club selection, on the 2017 TAYSHAS list, a VOYA Perfect Ten, and a Top Ten New Jersey Book.

Kephart will release two middle grade books with Caitlyn Dlouhy of Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. She is the co-founder of Juncture Workshops, offering memoir workshops and resources to writers across the country

Scattered Clouds by Reuben Jackson

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 130 pgs.
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When you have fate kick your butt and keep you from getting a poetry collection you’ve been eager to read (especially when you want to be at a reading), does that lead you to enjoy the collection even more when you finally get a copy?

This is my question because this was my journey to getting Reuben Jackson’s new collection. But I digress.


Scattered Clouds by Reuben Jackson is like a best hits record, but it’s also a deeply personal look at Washington, D.C., love in all of its incarnations, and the power of music (in this case Jazz). “Fingering the Keys” is a section of previously published poems by Jackson, giving readers some initial flavor of his work as he reflects on his younger years, roadtrips with his father, the harsh realities of being black in America. But as a kid you don’t always understand why you can’t do certain things like stay in that roadside teepee shaped motel in South Carolina. In “on the road,” the narrator speaks about the bargain struck with his dad to stay the night, but then says, “it worked,// so why did he return without/room keys?”

Each of these line breaks and pauses are like an interlude in which the undercurrent of the head in the music of Jackson’s poems comes to the fore full force, knocking the reader off their feet and sending their mind into overdrive. There are many of these “aha” or “Mmmhmmm” moments where readers are like I understand and I see where you are and what’s going on, even in the most innocent of moments. When we’re young and trying to find out who we are and want to be, we experiment, but there are those of us judged more harshly for experimenting outside “the comfort zone.”

a lonely affair

even the most die-hard liberals
have their moments;

like the man wearing the
end apartheid button
who followed me across his bookstore;

Jackson is well aware of the power of word choice when he speaks about the man’s bookstore, knowing full well that though this man is liberal, the narrator is from outside his known community and should be followed. Is he following him because he wants to talk, to share, or simply to monitor, to prevent, to presume? In “a lonely affair,” our narrator continues along his path, lonely as it may be, to ensure revolution does not fizzle out. By being there, out in the world and reading his poems, he’s affecting change.

“sunday brunch” has to be my favorite poem in this collection. The matter-of-fact response and sarcasm is priceless. I refuse to ruin the surprise, but how would you answer “Where do your parents summer?”

The section of “city songs” will transport you D.C. and beyond in ways you don’t expect. Readers are thrown into the deep pit of tragedy and sorrow, of borrowed breaths, and deep loneliness even in urban landscapes. The intimacy of the first section gives way to the wider world — it intrudes upon the intimacy and wrenches away the slightest sense of shelter. We’ve moved into a world where culture bears heavily down on those who do not fit neatly in it. Rather than change the tone, Jackson’s language almost lulls the reader into each situation, letting the reality of them seep under the skin.

“sky blues” is the crescendo of the collection, exploring the beauty of late-in-life love — a mutual respect and passion for the fullness of who we are. In the poems of the “Amir & Khadijah: A Suite,” Jackson becomes lyrical with love, the kind of love that can buoy a spirit in rough tides and become a lift of spirit. It’s Jackson’s song of hope, either for himself or for all of us. His heart is full of love and it is reaching out to us in line after line searching for connection.

Here, too, we find Jackson’s poem for Trayvon Martin as an angel guides the young boy home, away from danger. These final poems nod to the past and the struggles, with a hope for the future. Scattered Clouds by Reuben Jackson is the balm for the sting of “real” American life, laced with a hope that we can overcome, persevere, and take the lessons we’ve learned from those lost to us and apply them to our future selves to create a better tomorrow. It’s the coverage we need away from the storm without forgetting that storms do come.


I cannot urge you enough to buy these collection. Rarely do I outright tell you to buy something, but if you buy one poetry collection this year, let it be this one.


RATING: Cinquain

Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus

Source: Gift
Paperback, 68 pgs.
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Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, is another adventure with kindergartner Junie B. She’s a child whose had the full attention of her parents for all five years of her life, but things are changing, and she’s about to get a baby sibling.

What happens when she learns her baby broker is a cute little “monkey” is hilarious.

Junie B. believes her brother is unique and now sees why her parents wallpapered the baby room in a jungle theme. This little monkey will make her the most popular kid in school, especially when her two best friends vie for the honor of the first to see him in person. My daughter and I are having a grand old time laughing at Junie B. when she often repeats “and so” and “guess what … that’s what.”

My daughter is also still correcting Junie B.’s words like “bended.” I love that she’s paying attention to what she’s reading and correcting Junie B. This means she’s making progress in her reading skills, and that couldn’t make me prouder after these last two years of struggles.

Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, is a fun story about not taking advantage of your friends and learning to pay closer attention to what adults are saying and not taking it so literally.

RATING: Quatrain

The Joy Delivered Duet by Lauren Blakely (audio)

Source: Audible Purchase
Audiobook, 19+ hours
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The Joy Delivered Duet by Lauren Blakely, narrated by Sebastian York, is a delectable treat with the uber sexy voice of Sebastian York at the help. The duet of books in the series follow Joy Delivered CEO Jack Sullivan and Co-CEO Casey Sullivan as they navigate not only sex toy business affairs, but also unexpected seduction. This steamy set of books will hear up your days and are what I would call ear candy. Very light on complex plots but heavy on seduction and play.

In “Nights with Him,” what can Jack Sullivan do when he realizes his one night stand is the same Dr. Milo he has a therapy appointment with the next morning? Sullivan is in need of therapy after losing his fiancée in a tragic accident for which he blames himself but not in the way the wonderful paparazzi and media think. Michelle Milo is a no-nonsense woman who is very focused on her career and earning respect from her colleagues. In a business deal, therapy is punted to another therapist while he pursues more than a one-night stand with Michelle. But perhaps this kind of therapy is what he needs.

In “Forbidden Nights,” Casey Sullivan has been direct and a true business leader, but some of her boyfriends have said they don’t like her controlling ways in the bedroom. Hotel mogul Nate Harper has been her friend for many years, and he’s her best guy friend, but what happens when they cross that invisible line when Casey asks for his help in letting go? Nate agrees because his fantasy can become reality but he knows he cannot be her true love. Being with his best friend, Nate soon begins to realize what he’s been missing since his divorce. How will they navigate their new relationship? Will they both back away and return to friendship land, or will they take a leap into the unknown, all the while screaming into the passionate night?What happens when years of desire and lust ignite a passion that can’t be denied?

Both of these are high on sex, low on plot and complexity. The characters become entangled with one another at any time, any place, and any where. The scandal with Michelle and Jack is wrapped up quickly and vanishes just as fast, even as it was the biggest obstacle to their kinky happily ever after. Meanwhile, Nate and Casey’s story is a bit more sweet, romantic, and sexy. The Joy Delivered Duet by Lauren Blakely, narrated by Sebastian York, is a piece of dark chocolate that you want to swallow whole while also wanting to let it melt in your mouth. Delectable, at times dirty and erotic, but entertaining.

Rating: Tercet

Other Reviews:

Two More Days at Netherfield by Heather Moll

Source: Publisher
ebook, 406 pgs.
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Two More Days at Netherfield by Heather Moll finds Elizabeth Bennet and her sister at Netherfield like they were in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride & Prejudice.

While at Netherfield nursing her sister back to health, Elizabeth comes to realize that her first impressions of Mr. Darcy may have been wrong. At the same time, through teasing, she makes him realize that he may have been hasty in his opinion of her. As they continue to be in each other’s company, will they come to realize that they are more alike and complementary to one another than they initially thought?

These two begin to share their love of poetry and intellectual conversation. They start to view one another as friends, even if they do continue to verbally spar. Mr. Wickham arrives on the scene and their friendship, which is blatantly obvious to the scoundrel, hatches a plan.

“She has no beauty! I have twenty thousand pounds!”

Moll’s Elizabeth is outspoken and braver than the Lizzy in Austen’s novel. She makes the first move in some situations where she should be reserved. This, however, is not to say that she diverges too far from Austen’s character. The machinations of Mr. Wickham and Miss Bingley, though not in concert, are even more devious. I love that Moll made Wickham and Bingley more evil than in Austen’s book. Both of these characters know what they want and what their motivations are and they are committed to the last. Watch out Elizabeth and Darcy.

Bingley and Jane find their happiness more quickly but little else has changed, though there is no chance meeting at Hunsford for Darcy and Elizabeth. All of these changes are well done and not missed when Moll’s book unfolds.

Unfortunately, after Darcy and Lizzy get together and past all of their misconceptions and worries, the pace quickens. The novel fast forwards to when they are already married. As these chapters propel the reader into the future of their lives, I felt as though I was missing some great moments of connection between them. Aside from that, Darcy and Lizzy have a balance in their relationship that they hadn’t had before. Two More Days at Netherfield by Heather Moll is a heartwarming novel that brings Darcy and Elizabeth together in a way that makes them partners in all things. Partnerships in love are the best kind.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Heather Moll is an avid reader of mysteries and biographies with a master’s in
information science. She found Jane Austen later than she should have and made up for lost time by devouring Austen’s letters and unpublished works, joining JASNA, and spending too much time researching the Regency era. She is the author of Two More Days at Netherfield and His Choice of a Wife. She lives with her husband and son and struggles to balance all of the important things, like whether to clean the house or write. Connect with her on Facebook,
Goodreads, Instagram, and Twitter.

GIVEAWAY:

Quills & Quartos Publishing is giving away one ecopy at each blog stop of the Two More Days at Netherfield blog tour. All you need to do to enter the giveaway is comment on this blog post, and Quills & Quartos will randomly choose one random winner after Feb. 21, 2020. So, make sure you join in the conversation!

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades by S.M. Stevens

Source: Author
Paperback, 292 pgs.
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Horseshoes and Hand Grenades by S.M. Stevens is the story of women in the workforce in the 1980s, long before the #MeToo movement began and when women endured workplace harassment and abuse with little recourse other than to quit or change jobs. Shelby Stewart is an intern at a PR firm in Boston where Astrid Ericcson is an up-and-coming account executive who is looking to make it to the top soon. Astrid’s flirty personality is in stark contrast to her cold shoulder she gives her coworkers and is juxtaposed with Shelby’s practical attitude. Both women hail from humble beginnings, but they are both eager to make their own way in the PR world.

Shelby has some demons to work through, and as she ignores them, those memories begin to flit into her consciousness and affect her health. She struggles on the dating scene and can’t figure out why until she finally admits what happened in her past. Meanwhile, Ericcson realizes that her flirty nature may have been interpreted in a way she didn’t intend when her boss comes sniffing around, making innuendos and sexual quid pro quo statements.

These women cannot be in one another’s company, but eventually the ice melts between them and they become a trio with Shelby’s friend Tina — the most well adjusted of the bunch. I liked that these women soon focus on themselves and become a supportive group, but they rely far too heavily on alcohol and dance club, one-night stands until nearly the end.

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades by S.M. Stevens is a look at the effects of sexual harassment in the workplace during the 1980s and how women were stuck with few options — tough it out or move to another company. It also examines the lasting effects of sexual molestation and abuse that occurs too often in the home — forever shaping the worldview of the children it directly impacts. Stevens is a talented storyteller and the book is a page-turner.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

S.M. Stevens began writing fiction during back-to-back health crises. First, she broke her pelvis in three places in a horseback riding fall, and used the recuperation period to write Shannon’s Odyssey, a middle-grade novel for animal-lovers. Soon after, Stevens was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. During her five months of treatment and subsequent recovery spell, she wrote Bit Players, Has-Been Actors and Other Posers for musical theatre-loving teens. Two additional Bit Players novels followed. Horseshoes and Hand Grenades is her first adult book. After watching reactions to the #MeToo movement, she decided it was time for a novel that takes people into the minds of victims so they can understand why many women don’t speak up about their harassment or assault, and why some do. When not writing, she provides marketing and public relations services to solar energy companies. She is from Gorham, Maine, and now lives in Clinton, Mass., and Washington, N.H. She has also lived in Italy and in the U.K., where she was Group Public Affairs Director for National Grid. Visit her Website, Facebook, on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, GoodReads, and on Amazon.

Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus

Source: Gift
Paperback, 69 pgs.
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Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, is the first book in the series, and it is clear that Junie B. is not ready for kindergarten. But really, what kid is ready? She struggles with riding the bus, how to behave in class, and a whole host of other things, but this is normal behavior for a kindergartner.

My daughter and I have been reading these together, though she’s the one reading to me. The “wrong” words like “bended” and “funner,” etc., do continue to make her stumble while reading but she seems to be getting a better handle on correcting Junie B.’s words as she reads. In some ways, these “wrong” words appear to make her a stronger reader. She’s critically thinking about what she’s reading as she goes. While these words make me cringe, I can see how they’ve helped my daughter with her reading struggles over the last two books.

Junie B. can be a bit sassy and so can her friends, but this is part of finding our place in the world as a kid — learning boundaries, and making friends of strangers. Park really understands how children at this age think and act. What happens when Junie B. doesn’t get on the bus to go home after school? Will she be found out? Are her parents frantic? Is Junie B. scared? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, was a fun read and gave us a lot to think and laugh about. We learned about how kids can be mean sometimes, and how we have to learn how to cope with change.

RATING: Quatrain

OTHER Reviews:

Darcy vs. Bennet by Victoria Kincaid (audio)

Source: the author
Audiobook, 7+ hrs.
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Darcy vs. Bennet by Victoria Kincaid, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman, is not as the cover suggests a battle of wills between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, which is a delightful departure. It is more reminiscent of the themes in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet meet before the start of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice at a masquerade ball, and while she discovers his identity, he only knows her Christian name. It is delightful to see them together falling in love even behind a mask, but they are soon separated and forced to forget one another by time and space, until they are thrust together again. Another wonderful twist of fate here is that Mr. Darcy’s father is alive and not as honorable as his son.

While I do adore when Elizabeth and her William are together stealing kisses, there are so many moments where they are too consumed with one another to remember that they need to be discreet to avoid scrutiny and detection by Mr. Darcy. I almost wanted to shout at them to break it up and use their rational minds, especially Mr. Darcy since he knows the scheming his father is capable of. Much of my irritation stemmed from the enormous buildup about his father’s efforts to keep his son from the Bennet daughter, but the end fell flat to me and was wrapped up much too quickly.

The battle between Mr. George Darcy and Mr. Bennet is in the background. Although it does cast a shadow on the romance and their ability to come together, I would have liked to see more of that in flashbacks and potentially how his father would have told the tale to his son, rather than just getting Mr. Bennet’s version from Elizabeth. I fear there could have been more obstacles and prejudices played with here given the long-held animosity of these two parents. These stories could have colored Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth’s perspectives, causing a great deal more tension when Elizabeth and Darcy had to reconcile what they knew of one another from the masquerade ball.

Zimmerman, once again, is a wonderful narrator for Austen-inspired fiction. She does well with each of the characters, including the new villain Mr. George Darcy. I enjoyed her dramatic portrayal of him and all of the other characters we’ve come to know well.

Darcy vs. Bennet by Victoria Kincaid, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman, is a delightful diversion and has a range of emotions and plots to recommend it. Do not let my qualms with the plot stop you from enjoying this wonderful romance between two of our favorite characters — Darcy and Elizabeth. There are stolen kisses and embraces, as well as wonderful confessions of love.

RATING: Tercet

We Love Babies! by Jill Esbaum

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 40 pgs.
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We Love Babies! by Jill Esbaum is an adorable photography spread that will melt your heart with cute little baby animals. Esbaum uses rhyme to pinpoint the different aspects of these babies from webbed toes to wings. There are babies big and small, furry and feathery, and all full-fledged cute.

The book is for kids just learning words and different shapes, but my daughter loves cute baby animals (don’t we all). We would argue that this is a photography book for all ages. The images are crisp and detailed, and some are down right fun to look at. Esbaum’s witty rhymes make the book even more enjoyable for younger children — it’s almost song-like.

We Love Babies! by Jill Esbaum is a great way to introduce young children to the natural world, different species of animals (which are all labeled in the final pages), and words like big and small. These images will make you smile, which is another reason just to have this book around.

RATING: Cinquain

Junie B. Jones and Some Sneaky Peeky Spying by Barbara Park and illustrated by Denise Brunkus

Source: Gift
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Junie B. Jones and Some Sneaky Peeky Spying by Barbara Park and illustrated by Denise Brunkus is the fourth book in the series and is riddled with actual dialogue that a younger kindergartner would use. Junie B. loves to sneak around and spy on her family but when they explain that she shouldn’t be doing that, she still considers herself a sneaky spy. When she spies on the wrong person, it could spell big trouble.

My daughter had a hard time with some of the misspelled words. But she started to learn to correct them as she read aloud. We like Junie B. and her antics, even if she gets in trouble, but her misspelled words were troublesome, especially for my daughter who continues to struggle with reading. This is a fun series, but I’m not sure we’ll read more of these as part of her nightly practice.

Junie B. Jones and Some Sneaky Peeky Spying by Barbara Park and illustrated by Denise Brunkus is a cute book with a mischievous girl who likes to see the world without anyone knowing she’s there. She just doesn’t understand the concept of privacy.

RATING: Quatrain

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Source: Publisher
Hardcover, 400 pgs.
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American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a roller coaster of emotions, but provides a fictionalized look at the journey migrants endure to escape the horrors of their homes and the people that seek to murder, rape, conscript, or abuse them. Many migration stories speak to the economic conditions of the homeland or the volatile political world, but few take us into the emotional world of the migrants’ journey to the United States.

Lydia and Luca emerge from the most tragic day of their lives running for safety. Safety is not their home or another relative’s home in Mexico, but across the border into the United States where the cartel Los Jardineros cannot reach. These are the faces of migrants. Not drug dealers, not rapists, and not criminals, but honest people forced to flee their home because suddenly the cartel is at their door thirsting for blood.

Lydia and Sebastian would have been considered to be well off compared to others in Acapulco. She owned a bookstore, and her husband was a journalist. Although many of his articles were published anonymously, anonymity only works so far when your writing about the cartel Los Jardineros. Their son, Luca, is a typical 8-year-old who loves to play, but he’s also very smart about geography. But their relatively quiet life is obliterated in one moment.

In heart-stopping detail, Cummins endears Lydia and Luca to her audience. They are real people, fleeing real dangers. They just want to live beyond today. As citizens of the United States, it is hard for us to imagine leaving all we know behind and living elsewhere because we have no choice. This is precisely why these fictional migrants are so important. They provide us a window into the many individual stories and experiences of migrants who cross the U.S. border, and what we see will not only shock us awake, but force us to revisit our prejudices and malformed notions about immigrants and why they are in the United States instead of changing things in their own countries.

“In the road ahead, two young men, two teenage boys really, tote AR-15s. Perhaps it’s precisely because that make of gun isn’t quite as prolific or as sexy as the ubiquitous AK-47 here that Lydia finds it all the more terrifying. Ridiculous, she knows. One gun will make you as dead as another. But there’s something so utilitarian about the sleek, black AR-15, like it can’t be bothered to put on a show.” (pg. 82 ARC)

There is a deep sense of powerlessness but also a determination to retrieve some power over their own lives. As Lydia and Luca cross paths with other migrants, the picture becomes more detailed, more graphic, more upending. Even Lydia must come to terms with her own perceptions and pities she had for migrants…those views she had before she was forced to become a migrant herself. Her life as a bookstore owner, reader, middle-income mother blinded her in many ways to what was right in front of her until it is already too late. Much of her blindness is due to her inability to resist the charm of an educated reader, someone who clearly sees in her prey to be captured. The decisions she makes from the moment of tragedy until the end of the novel are governed by a her new perspective. Never take a mother’s love for granted; it is a powerful force.

Migrants from Mexico and Central America struggle to make it to the United States, many atop La Bestia. They face starvation, dehydration, robbery, rape, murder, human trafficking and so much more, as the cartels continue to carve up these countries and sell their people to the highest bidder. IS America the sanctuary that many migrants believe it to be? No. But Cummins highlights those moments too in the stories Lydia is told from migrants returning home and those returning to the United States even though they were kicked out. With American dirt in the title, readers must reconsider what “American” means. Not all of the dirt/borders are considered American in the United States, yet residents of North and South America are all American.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is the “IT” book for 2020 and without question all of the hype and praise is well deserved. This book has so many layers and would be a fantastic pick for book clubs everywhere. It is life changing; it is a book to open the eyes of the “America” we want to be to the eyes of the America we are. We are all American, regardless of the country in which we live or which country we came from.

RATING: Cinquain

***If you are in the Gaithersburg, Md., area, please join us for our first book club. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was selected as the first book for Gaithersburg Reads, a community book club read.

***Our big, giant book discussion event with Jeanine Cummins will be on March 31st, 7pm, at Gaithersburg High School Performing Arts Center.

 

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About the Author:

Jeanine Cummins is the author of four books: the bestselling memoir A Rip in Heaven, and the novels The Outside BoyThe Crooked Branch, and American Dirt. She lives in New York with her husband and two children.