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Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection by Tara Campbell

Source: GBF
Paperback, 98 pgs.
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Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection by Tara Campbell is a short story collection of disturbing and horrifying stories about dolls and other playthings. Each story breathes life into Barbie’s friends, teddy bears with guns, and so many other body-less beings. These nine stories may seem like innocent looks into the lives of our childish playthings, but these toys are not childish and they are far from innocent. Campbell weaves her tales with such precise language, you’re swept up into this horrifying world in which rape and voodoo have serious, life-threatening consequences and the phrase “let them eat cake” emerges from an entirely different context.

From “The Box”: “Miss Holly raises empty palms. ‘At this point motives are immaterial. All we can manage now are the consequences.'” (pg. 4)

The opening story, “The Box,” finds a number of dolls languishing in the darkness not only of the physical place, but the emotional space. They are unsure why they have been removed from their children and why they can no longer be in the playroom, but once the consequences of events that “happened to them” and were “beyond their control” are revealed, the parallels between these dolls and many young women become clear. The uncertainty, the fear, the anxiety, the shaming. It is all here in this short story, and if it makes you uncomfortable, it should. It should also make you rethink your actions and reactions to young women who find themselves similarly situated, especially when things beyond their control occur. Sympathy, rather than judgment, should be given, along with a helping hand.

Campbell’s stories are haunting and unsettling. They will leave readers looking for the flashlight to not only provide themselves with a sense of hope, but to also reveal some harsh truths. Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection by Tara Campbell is a delight in horror and twisted storytelling that shouldn’t be missed.

The last story I read that had dolls in it was hugely disappointing. You can check out my review of The Birthing House.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

With a BA in English, an MA in German, and an MFA in Creative Writing, Tara Campbell has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. She currently lives in Washington, D.C.

She is the recipient of the following awards from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities: the 2016 Larry Neal Writers’ Award in Adult Fiction, the 2016 Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist, and Arts and Humanities Fellowships for 2018 – 2022. She is also a 2017 Kimbilio Fellow and winner of the 2018 Robert Gover Story Prize.

Tara earned her MFA from American University in 2019, and is a fiction editor at Barrelhouse. She teaches fiction with American University, the Writer’s Center, Politics and Prose, and the National Gallery of Art’s Writing Salon. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 10+ hours
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The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl, narrated by the author, is a delight by itself. If you want to here Grohl talk about his life as written in the book with some riffs and musical interludes, you should pick up this audio.

There’s a lot of unbelievable moments in his life, and I think his ability to just “go for it” and say “yes” to any opportunity really helped him become as successful as he is. I do think some will be disappointed about the lack of gossip about Nirvana and Courtney Love, etc., but most will have to recall that Nirvana was already a band for three years when Grohl joined. He’s spent a very small amount of his career with that band. This is a memoir about Grohl’s life in music and life.

I don’t need to say much else, because I already reviewed the book.

RATING: Cinquain

From Ashes to Heiresses by Renata McMann and Summer Hanford (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 1+ hrs.
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From Ashes to Heiresses by Renata McMann and Summer Hanford, narrated by Catherine Bilson, is a delightful short story that occurs after Mr. Darcy’s unexpected and terrible proposal to Elizabeth Bennet at Hunsford, but in this story, Longbourn has burned down. Elizabeth and Jane are the only surviving members of the Bennet family, and they are forced to live with their relatives.

Bilson is a precise narrator, with perfect pronunciation and inflection. However, her narrative voice for Jane and Elizabeth is very similar, which makes it harder to discern who is speaking, especially if you are engaged in tasks other than listening to the audio. Her inflections for Mr. Darcy are spot on, however, making her rendition of him a standout.

McMann and Hanford have created a delightful alternative for our Austen characters, and while the romance is quickly tied up at the end, it works well with the characterizations early on in the story and the storyline. From Ashes to Heiresses by Renata McMann and Summer Hanford, narrated by Catherine Bilson, was a delightful distraction.

RATING: Quatrain

Woodrow on the Bench by Jenna Blum

While I didn’t officially sign up for Book Journey‘s event, First Book of the Year, here it is:

Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog by Jenna Blum is a love letter to a beloved companion who provided Blum with not only companionship and love, but also with lessons in patience, humility, and so much more. Woodrow, named after the former Texas Ranger in Lonesome Dove, was a black lab full of mischief, a lover of food (esp. carrots), and energy.

Woodrow is much like our husky and her love of carrots and the outside, but he’s also like my keeshond who loved food so much, you’d often find him in the fridge, stealing pork chops from tables, and so on. Blum’s memoir also brought me back to my college days in Boston. I knew exactly where she was at all times, and the struggles of crossing Commonwealth Ave. are real, and I miss the old Ritz, now the Taj. It has been a very long time since I’ve been back, and during these pandemic years, it allowed me to revisit some places along the way. And for some reason, winter always reminds me of Boston and it’s bone-chilling cold … and the snow! Hence, this became my first read of 2022.

“If I try to cross Commonwealth Avenue at the wrong time or emerge from between parked cars instead of using the crosswalk, there’s an excellent chance I’ll be mowed over. Usually by somebody in a BMW, which I have long since decided — forgive me, Beamer drivers — is an acronym for asshole.”

Blum’s narrative carries the reader on an emotional journey with highs and lows, and most of us know that Woodrow is on the decline at his advanced age. While she does characterize his breathing at one point as “more Darth Vader than usual,” we know that these moments are scary. Woodrow is endearing and he becomes like our own pet through these pages, as we laugh and cry alongside Blum. She’s losing one of her most important anchors, not to be outdone by the equally devastating losses of both her parents.

I found so much of myself in these pages — I’m stubborn like Blum and want to do things the more you tell me they cannot be done. (I’m not sure who I inherited this trait from, honestly, because both my parents shy away from action and conflict. It’s in the genes somewhere.) But when it comes to saving a beloved family member (yes, pets are family), the impossible is just that.

Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog by Jenna Blum is not only about the loss of a family pet or the lessons Blum learned along the way, it is a microcosm of what we’ve forgotten about humanity – that people can be good and do good. It’s shown time and again when strangers help Blum with her dog as he struggles to walk or when she’s struggling to cross one of the busiest thoroughfares in Boston with her old dog. And she, like us, is “stunned” every time by this compassion. There is something ultimately beautiful that comes from all the sadness in these pages, and we, as readers, are better for it.

RATING: Cinquain

Best Books of 2021

It’s hard to believe that 2021 is already over.

In 2021 I read 100 books, but I didn’t do a breakdown by genre this year. I do think I read nearly 50 poetry books last year, which is a lot. I found that I struggled to concentrate on fiction last year. But reading poetry was easier and calming.

Not all of the books I read in 2021 were reviewed last year. I lost some of that reviewing mojo.

There are some books that I couldn’t review last year because they are in the running for the local festival and others have an embargo. You’ll see those reviews throughout 2022, but they will be tagged as “read in 2021.”

What books did you find easier to read last year? Did you struggle with your reading?

Here’s my Best Books of 2021 (though not all were published in 2021): Links go to my reviews of the books.

Nonfiction:

Children’s/Kids:

Fiction:

Poetry: (originally there were at least 12 top books on my list – I’ve narrowed that down to these 6)

Please share your Best of 2021 lists in the comments.

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 304 pgs.
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Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci is a delight in many ways. It’s food, family, friends, and humor. Growing up in New York State and traveling to Italy knowing little to no Italian was an adventure in itself, but Tucci has led a adventurous life in food and life. Don’t get me wrong, there are personal struggles and losses in these pages, and there is his diagnosis of cancer, but through it all, his love of food and how it brings family and friends together shines through.

I’m utterly delighted by his humor – it reminds me so much of my own father’s family. The devil-may-care attitude coupled with the traditional rules that cannot be broken — what in the world are you thinking? It’s a catch-22 kind of place to grow up. But the food. Italians love food, and I dare say that the Portuguese are the same. We’ve always come to the table ready to eat, course after course. While there is a great deal more pasta in this book, it was so delightful to read his take on how things taste. His descriptions will have you salivating, even as you are smiling and laughing along with him about some story on set, with his family, or on a press junket.

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci is a journey in food and it explores how food brings us together as human beings. Some of best times are around the table. Don’t be surprised if you end up hungry several times while reading this. There’s recipes to sate that hunger, if you are feeling adventurous.

RATING: Cinquain

the moon won’t be dared by Anne Leigh Parrish

Source: Poet
Paperback, 150 pgs.
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the moon won’t be dared by Anne Leigh Parrish opens “among the trees” where the forest is populated by trees in competition with one another, yet united in their need of rooting. Lydia Selk’s collage imposes a woman on the forest of birches in the dense foliage, lying with arched back and eyes closed. Here she seems at peace, but as onlookers (like the statue in the foreground), she’s aware of witnesses who may judge her for her sheer presence. This unique collection is not how art informs poetry like in ekphrastic poems, but how the art of Lydia Selk accompanying these poems is informed by Parrish’s words. But that is not all that’s going on in this collection.

Parrish is a great observer of nature and the world around her, and she invokes the power of that world to demonstrate just how insignificant we can be and how natural power continues regardless of what we think or feel. Like in “storm,” the clouds are gathering and rearranging, while the narrator is talking, but her conversation does nothing but bring noise to a building storm that breaks and drifts on a rush of wind.

Some of my favorite poems in the collection are in the mid- to latter-half. From “the plains, as seen from above” where a river’s curves are compared to a woman’s hips and the changes the world and the woman have endured over time to “tutelage” where a woman looks back on all that she’s learned from her mother and other peers in her life, only to find the teachings less than adequate and that she may have more to teach them.

the moon won’t be dared by Anne Leigh Parrish, which toured with Poetic Book Tours, is a journey into womanhood and nature that leaves you naked in the forest, but unafraid. Readers will see how the artist Lydia Selk was inspired by Parrish’s imaginative poems that reflect on what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated society and what it means to break free and to own who you are.

***Check out my interview with Anne Leigh Parrish***

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Anne Leigh Parrish is the author of nine previously published books: A Winter Night (Unsolicited Press 2021); What Nell Dreams, a novella & stories (Unsolicited Press, 2020); Maggie’s Ruse, a novel, (Unsolicited Press, 2017); The Amendment, a novel (Unsolicited Press, 2017); Women Within, a novel (Black Rose Writing, 2017); By the Wayside, stories (Unsolicited Press, 2017); What Is Found, What Is Lost, a novel (She Writes Press, 2014); Our Love Could Light The World, stories (She Writes Press, 2013); and All The Roads That Lead From Home, stories (Press 53, 2011). Visit her website.

Great Power, No Responsibility (Spider-Ham Original Graphic Novel) by Steve Foxe, illustrated by Shadia Amin

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Great Power, No Responsibility (Spider-Ham Original Graphic Novel) by Steve Foxe, illustrated by Shadia Amin, is classic Peter Porker! This Spider-Ham was seen in multiverse movie for the Spiderman franchise, and in this graphic novel, he is recognized by the city and the mayor gives him a key to the city in thanks. I was intrigued by this because I’ve loved comics since I was a kid, and Spider Pig, as I called him long ago before the Simpsons’ song, was a cartoon on television.

My daughter received this from her school’s Scholastic book club, and she was excited because Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is her favorite movie of late — she’s probably watched it about 10 times. She read this one on her own, but we did talk about what she read, and this story line was easy to follow for her.

Peter Porker has lost the key to the city. Has it fallen into the wrong hands? Of course, our favorite Marvel characters don’t look the same in this anthropomorphic universe — hulk as a giant green bunny? — but it made for some comical interactions. My daughter was often giggling while reading and pointing out some funny bits to me here and there.

Great Power, No Responsibility (Spider-Ham Original Graphic Novel) by Steve Foxe, illustrated by Shadia Amin, offers younger readers a fun story about responsibility with animal-looking characters they know from the Marvel universe. My daughter really enjoyed this book, and the illustrations are vivid and fun. The action scenes are easy to follow along, and she definitely recommends this to others.

RATING: Cinquain

The Extraordinary Life of Serena Williams by Shelina Janmohamed, illustrated by Ashley Evans

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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The Extraordinary Life of Serena Williams by Shelina Janmohamed, illustrated by Ashley Evans, is another nonfiction title for elementary readers that explores the real life of someone familiar to them. Tennis Star, entrepreneur, and mother Serena Williams. My daughter read this one on her own and was able to recount much of what happened to Serena in her life. She had no trouble reading the text – at least I wasn’t asked what’s this word.

My daughter loved the illustrations and how realistic they looked. This is a story about how dedication and hard work can help you achieve your dreams. There are little bubbles with word definitions, including “criticize.” This is a word that my daughter actually knew on her own, but I liked how the definitions were not too complex.

“You have to believe in yourself when no one else does,” Serena said.

There is a lot of detail about her home life, her father’s dedication to his girls tennis careers, and how they worked hard to get practice time. The book also doesn’t shy away from the violence in her neighborhood and the obstacles she faced. There’s a timeline of her life, as well as some items for young readers to think about.

The Extraordinary Life of Serena Williams by Shelina Janmohamed, illustrated by Ashley Evans, is a well-rounded story about a tennis great. I loved that this book kept my daughter interested and she learned a great deal about perseverance.

RATING: Quatrain

Kaddish: Before the Holocaust and After by Jane Yolen

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 88 pgs.
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Kaddish: Before the Holocaust and After by Jane Yolen is an exploration of loss that readers will be unable to turn away from. Readers must witness the devastating pain of the holocaust, but Yolen still holds out hope that violence is not the only solution to bullies and violence. In “What About Goliath,” Yolen explores David’s win over Goliath and asks, “Maybe there’s a better way/than slingshots, hot shots, mugshots./Better than becoming Goliath/ourselves.//” (pg. 7)

The poems in this collection explore generational loss and the brokenness that follows genocide. The stories of the dead are only kept alive by those who remember, but the perpetrators often have the luxury of seeing those stories as a past that they can rewrite or at least supplant with their own.

From "Holocaust Stories" (pg. 42)

...
We make it true again, truer,
because story sticks
when memory fails.
...

Yolen explores this in “Kristallnacht in Hamburg,” where her poem points out, “Not all Germans remember/this is the night./It is eighty years later,/their great grandparents’ sin,/only a story, a history,/they will have one of their own.// But still, we are all broken./But still, we are all glass.//” (pg. 25) We need to remember that we are all broken by violence. The people we thought our grandparents were when they cared for us, are those same people who harmed others out of hate. We are all part of that broken history. There is always that question in the shadows of how repairing what is broken will still show the cracks of the past.

Kaddish: Before the Holocaust and After by Jane Yolen is heartbreaking in its sincerity. Yolen’s poems provide a frank look at the Holocaust and after, particularly the absence of respect often shown at Holocaust remembrance locations, with teens smiling and laughing. The movement of time often makes memory hazy, which makes these stories all the more important. We need to hear these stories, feel the pain, and learn to move further away from the violence that leads to brokenness.

RATING: Cinquain

The Bennet Women by Eden Appiah-Kubi

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 366 pgs.
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The Bennet Women by Eden Appiah-Kubi is such a fun debute novel. While it is marketed as a modern Pride & Prejudice, it really is so much more than that. The women of Bennet House at Longbourn University are like a family – EJ, Jamie, and Tessa. EJ is an ambitious Black engineering student, and Jamie, her best friend, is a transgender woman who’s studying French and theater. Tessa is a Filipina astronomy major with serious guy problems. Bennet House is full of empowerment for these women, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t in need of support. EJ, in particular, is a young woman who had to give up her ballet dreams and has fallen into a career path she’s not exactly sure she wants. She’s a very serious student and a caring RA for other women in Bennet House, but she needs to let loose and find herself.

“It was a truth universally acknowledged that a black girl at a mostly white college, in an even whiter college town, must befriend someone who can do her hair.” (pg. 19)

When her friend Jamie falls for campus heartthrob and all-around good guy Lee Gregory, EJ finds herself thrown in the company of his arrogant friend, Will. Jamie is balancing her new identity with her rocky relationship with her mother since her transition and EJ is the one friend who has stood by her. Jamie has issues navigating her new life because there’s a lot of uncertainty in her relationships, but she finds that her core support is her friends at Bennet House.

EJ’s relationship with Will starts off with a bang of an insult and a horrible follow-up encounter at her favorite diner. These two seem to be like oil and water. But things take a turn they don’t expect.

This novel does not shy away from the obstacles faced by blacks in America, nor the struggles of LGBTQ people. I also loved that the author based her writing in places she clearly knows well. As a local D.C. area writer, it was great to see the city and its suburbs portrayed in a way that isn’t focused only on gun violence. EJ’s family is stable and supportive, her sister’s ambitions are realized but she never forgets where she came from, and I loved the talk EJ’s father gives Will.

Appiah-Kubi is a delightful writer who has a firm grasp of what makes any situation humorous. I loved that she took an Austen classic and made it her own. EJ is a strong character and so are her friends, and they face similar trouble that all college students do. How to find their place on campus, how to navigate their courses to plan their future careers, and even how to balance it all with jobs and love.

The Bennet Women by Eden Appiah-Kubi should be on your holiday shopping list this year for the readers in your life who need a little hope, a little light, and some romance. This book was a read I couldn’t put down, and as many of you know, these last two years I’ve struggled with picking up fiction books and finishing them. I had no problem reading this book in just a few days.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Eden Appiah-Kubi fell in love with classic novels in fourth grade, when her mom read her Jane Eyre, chapter-by-chapter, as a bedtime story. She’s an alumna of a small New England university with a weird mascot (Go Jumbos!), and a former Peace Corps volunteer. Eden developed her fiction writing through years in a small Washington, DC critique group. Today she works as a Librarian and lives in the DC suburbs with her husband and hilarious daughter.

The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl

Source: Gift
Hardcover, 384 pgs.
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The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl is more than just a memoir of music and the powerhouses in it. This is a story of one man’s complete awe of where his life has taken him and what drives him to keep going even when tragedy rocked his world and threatened to upend it for good. From Grohl’s opening line about aging — “Sometimes I forget that I’ve aged. — readers know they have found a kindred spirit. Aging is a process of time, and more often than not, we’re too busy living to notice that time has passed and we are no longer as young as our heads and hearts may still believe we are. I know I feel this way a lot of the time.

Grohl’s musical career began in his bedroom with a couple of pillows and a dream, but his love of music was with him since birth. From singing in the car with his mother to sharing punk band music with his cousin and taking drumming lessons from a Jazz legend, Grohl was on the path of stardom long before he realized it was his dream.

“At an early age, I started to play drums with my teeth, sliding my jaw back and forth and chomping up and down to simulate the sound of a drum set in my mouth, doing drum rolls and grace notes as if I were using my hands, without anyone ever noticing.”

If you’re looking for gossip of the nastiest kind, forget it. This is a story of hope, perseverance, hard work, and a ton of coffee. That’s my kind of person, though I admit I have never drank pot after pot of coffee and thought I was having a heart attack.

There’s so much memory in this book, and I remember the great Olsson’s Books and Records in Bethesda, so when I saw that in this book (but the Georgetown store), it brought back a lot of memories of my early days in the DMV. Grohl’s writing mirrors the old storyteller who begins a tale, takes a tangential side trip, and gets back to the main thread. But I absolutely loved all the meandering.

When you get to the part about Nirvana, you realize that many fans know him because of this band and its music, but really, Grohl had lived a full musical life before and after Nirvana. He often talks about how he was a nerd/geek and it was clear that the people who grew to love Nirvana over time were those that used to bully him as a kid. The chapter on his grief after lead singer Kurt Cobain’s death is some of the most poignant and real chapters I’ve read on grief. Everyone grieves differently and grief is not the same for each person’s passing.

Grohl may have passed one of the most devastating moments in his life, but he still carries that with him. There are a great may takeaways in this memoir, but one of the best is this: “Courage is a defining factor in the life of any artist.”

Definitely a book that will live on the shelf with my other Rock Stars. The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl is one of the most open and heartfelt memoirs I’ve read in a long time. Would I fangirl if I saw Grohl in person – yes, yes I would. But I do that with anyone’s work I admire. Just ask all the poets I talk to and the ones I will meet someday into the future.

RATING: Cinquain